Study: Nonprofits need leadership, management skills

Written on Nov 08, 2017

Four of five nonprofits struggle with leadership and management issues and only 11% are prepared to scale for optimal impact, according to a new survey of more than 3,000 executives, staff, board members and donors.

The Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector was spearheaded by William F. Meehan III and Kim Starkey Jonker, authors of Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector, which will be released later this month.

Among some of the most common challenges for nonprofits, according to the survey:

  • 56% struggle with weak board governance
  • 52% struggle with fundraising
  • Half struggle with impact evaluation
  • 52% are not ready to scale their impact because they exhibit “weakness in strategic thinking,” such as, mission, strategy, impact evaluation, or insight and courage”
  • 27% exhibit “weakness in strategic management,” such as, organization and talent, funding, or board governance, despite exhibiting strong strategic thinking

A strategy of focus beats diversification, the authors argued, despite almost 1 in 4 respondents saying that their programs should be diversified to some degree. To guard against mission creep, Meehan and Jonker emphasized that nonprofits should shun the urge to diversify program areas and activities.

Almost one-quarter of executives and staff indicated they don’t believe their nonprofit sets clear expectations for performance. Some 27% of nonprofit executives and staff don’t believe their organization’s culture encourages and rewards high performance. Almost one-third of respondents said they don’t get regular and specific feedback that helps them improve.

Research by Meehan and Jonker on high-performance nonprofits suggested seven essential components of strategic leadership that are needed to maximize impact:

  • Mission – a focused, clearly-defined statement of purpose
  • Strategy – a strategic framework based strictly on what matters most
  • Impact Evaluation – a system to measure impact
  • Insight and Courage – a commitment to applying heart and soul to each decision
  • Organization and Talent – a superb team to build and sustain high performance
  • Funding – an ability to build strategic revenue channels and to tap the right donors
  • Board Governance – a strong, effective board of directors

High-performing nonprofits need strength in all seven of these areas, Meehan and Jonker said, and an inability to master just one of them can prevent an organization from achieving its goals.

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