10 Key Traits of Successful Modern Nonprofit Founders

10 Key Traits of Successful Modern Nonprofit Founders

key traits of successful nonprofit founders

Amidst increased demands for accountability and scrutiny over operational performance, nonprofit executive leaders are being asked to deliver more effective measures to address complex social issues largely ignored by government and business entities.

(John L. Perry, 2019)

Whether in the for-profit or the nonprofit sector, all organizations fundamentally need strong leadership talent to succeed.

Therefore, ensuring a steady supply of great leaders is critical.

And starting a nonprofit organization is by no means an easy undertaking. From strategic thinking to entrepreneurial mindset to fundraising to legalities –  today’s nonprofit leaders need to demonstrate a wide range of skills. They also need to have a wide repertoire of behaviors and experiences and know when and how to apply them.

They must make sure that their nonprofit operations run smoothly without displacing the relationship-based approach to nonprofit leadership, or losing sight of the vision and mission.

A modern nonprofit leader, furthermore, demonstrates a melding of private sector business acumen and traditional nonprofit attributes.

A nonprofit leader may need to, in a single day, address news of a major donor dropping out (financial challenge), review program data and find out that the organization isn’t having the intended impact on its beneficiaries (mission challenge), and deal with hiring a new fundraiser (talent challenge).

Traits of Successful Modern Nonprofit Founders

So, what are the qualities that make up a nonprofit founder who’s able to rise up to these challenges?

Below, we share the key qualities of a successful nonprofit founder.

  1. Resilience & Stamina
  2. Being Mission-Driven
  3. Inspiring Leaders
  4. Business/Financial Acumen
  5. Relationship-Building
  6. Strategic Thinking
  7. Resourcefulness & Fundraising
  8. Managing Complexity & Asking Big Questions
  9. Effective Communication
  10. Adaptable/Agile

10 Qualities of a Successful Nonprofit Founder


1. Resilience & Stamina

Nonprofit founders are often “thrown into the fire” (or jump in it themselves). They can often be found fighting off a crisis or turning around a failing program.

Hardship is a daily reality for most nonprofit leaders.

The Greater Good Science Center defines resilience skills as being able to minimize the impact of stress which in turn helps us avoid burnout.  

Nonprofit founders need to be flexible, willing to adapt, and able to move forward despite setbacks— demonstrating persistence.

They also need to have physical and emotional stamina. They have to be able to tolerate long days with lots of conversations, varying duties, potential rejections, and solving problems.

Finally, great nonprofit founders also possess equanimity in the face of uncertainty and/or crisis and remain level-headed. They have a calming effect on others by deftly handling stress and resisting frustration.


2. Being Mission-Driven

Without financial profit as the driving force, the mission is central in the nonprofit sector.

Being mission-driven is probably one of the most important traits of successful nonprofit founders. Effective nonprofit leaders are like shepherds for their cause — they bring people in.

No amount of business acumen or adaptability will help unless a nonprofit leader is herself passionate about the mission, driven by it, and able to communicate it to others.

There should be an ease in successful nonprofit founders communicating the purpose of their organization to a powerful donor, a prospective hire, or a beneficiary — because the organization’s mission is in their bloodstream.

Nonprofits are mission-focused organizations, so effective nonprofit leaders need to ensure that the mission is communicated and actively embraced internally and externally. Often this dictates the public support the nonprofit receives and how the community it serves responds to its outreach.

Pro tip: Being mission-driven should also include being client-driven. Great nonprofit founders are profoundly driven to satisfy the needs and expectations of their beneficiaries and employees. They always seek information and feedback in order to improve programs and decision-making, always keeping clients at the forefront of their attention.


3. Inspiring Leaders

The secret to nonprofit success often lies in the passion of their leaders and their unending search for excellence in all they do.

Great nonprofit leaders put stock in the opinions of team members at all levels. Their decision-making is collaborative. They encourage people to have their own opinions and share them.

Successful modern nonprofit founders genuinely care about their people. They take personal responsibility for making the team feel fulfilled, productive, and motivated.

Successful nonprofit founders build and maintain a positive culture and an uplifting attitude.

Such leaders listen and actively seek input from their staff and board to increase morale. They earn the trust and respect of others. They create a winning and positive attitude that signals to others “this is the mission to work for and the organization to do it in”.

Nonprofit salaries are often modest, with limited potential for raises and promotions since hierarchies are generally flat. In for-profit enterprises, leaders can sometimes get away with being a manager and not a leader. Nonprofit managers, on the other hand, have to be effective leaders of people, first and foremost. They have to be able to invest in people as individuals and ignite the passion within them without incentives such as compensation or promotion.

Pro tip: Great nonprofit founders encourage outside-the-box ideas, question perceived limitations, and imagine a new reality where audacious, system-wide goals can be achieved.

Traits of Successful Modern Nonprofit Founders


4. Business/Financial Acumen

Business acumen is defined as a set of skills and competencies needed to be effective and successful in the modern business world.

Successful nonprofit founders foster a spirit of entrepreneurship, business acumen, and are market savvy.

Adopting an entrepreneurial style of business management may indeed be crucial for the survival and operations of many nonprofits.

For example, ensuring an organization’s successful financial future requires leaders to understand financial information. Without that, they cannot make financial decisions to lead the organization well. They need to know how numbers are generated, their impact on decisions, and how they impact the vision of the organization. Also, they need to be able to budget and create financial plans that support the organization’s vision and strategies.

The adoption of for-profit sector practices and a particular mindset is a contentious and debatable issue for some nonprofit professionals. However, the nonprofit sector is not immune from occurrences in the broader economy – so successful nonprofit leaders should become knowledgeable about market and business trends.

Pro tip: There is a clear distinction between having business acumen and managing the nonprofit like a business, which may include outsourcing services, downsizing staff, emphasizing financial measures, and creating generous compensation packages.


5. Relationship-Building

Relationship building and stakeholder management are vital aspects of a nonprofit organization’s efforts to create social change. Nonprofit organizations work with a variety of internal and external stakeholders. For example, certain nonprofits may rely upon hospitals or shelters as facilities for their programs, while others may turn to young people in their neighborhoods as key participants in a grassroots, community-organizing campaign.

Great nonprofit founders need to be able to both influence and manage those within their organization, but also those outside the confines of the organization.

Successful nonprofit founders also build and maintain relationships with peers. They carefully curate networks to challenge their thinking and expand their perspectives.

The most effective nonprofit founders are also “in touch” with the community their organization serves. They aren’t afraid to make speeches, meet and greet, network, and be visible in and to the community. A good nonprofit leader isn’t going to get very far if they aren’t interacting with the community they serve.

Successful nonprofit founders are usually perceived as honest individuals with great integrity. They do not break confidences or engage in misrepresentations of the truth. They are guided by a clear set of core values and sincerely-held beliefs that are maintained in the face of change and difficulty.

Pro tip: Outstanding nonprofit leaders spearhead collaboration. Collaborations should aim not only to achieve a tangible result but also to pave the way for future partnerships. They should also be clear about what they are trying to solve, how they will measure success toward those collective goals, and how that data will inform future decision making.


6. Strategic Thinking

Steering their organization hinges on the founder’s ability to envision and plan for multiple futures, engage a broad set of stakeholders in planning processes, and then stay

true to a well-articulated set of strategic priorities while adapting to the shifting circumstances.

Nonprofit organizations must think strategically to develop alternative income streams to guarantee the longevity of their programs and to ensure their clients will continue to receive the services they need.

Great nonprofit founders are able to see the big picture and identify key areas or underlying issues and develop effective strategies to address them. Using broad understanding and viewpoints, they can forecast future trends correctly. They possess the ability to credibly depict future scenarios, plans, and opportunities.

Successful strategic thinkers also have a holistic view of their organization. Strategic thinking results in a strong planning process that scrutinizes every idea and leads to the implementation of a sound strategy.

Great nonprofit leaders are apt at priority-setting, meaning they can identify the few key issues or priorities to address from the multitude of less important issues and organizational noise and commit their and others’ time to the most important ones.

They are also able to deconstruct complex tasks and projects into concrete actions and objectives and align tasks to work schedules and staff assignments.

Pro tip: Nonprofit leaders need to chart the future direction for their organizations and communicate it to all stakeholders. It requires courage and skill to set the vision and then inspire and motivate others to chart a new course.

Traits of Successful Modern Nonprofit Founders


7. Resourcefulness & Fundraising

Resourcefulness is key when resources are scarce or non-existent, which is often the case with nonprofit organizations.

They have an eye on the next financial opportunity for the organization — whether it’s a donor prospect or a lucrative sponsorship. Their mastery of the financial side of the business makes their team members feel secure and optimistic for the future.

As the face of their nonprofit organization, nonprofit founders also often assume the role of fundraisers. Major donors, for example, may want to interact with the founder directly when discussing donations. Smaller organizations especially may not have a designated development team to solicit funds, so it falls to the founder to shape fundraising efforts.

The founder should, therefore, be well-versed in fundraising and be able to discuss program outcomes.

To put it simply, good nonprofit founders need to be able to work effectively in a resource-constrained environment or, in other words, they need to be able to “maximize resources, and do more with less.”


8. Managing Complexity & Asking Big Questions

Great nonprofit leaders aren’t afraid to ask themselves and their team of board, staff, funders, and volunteers the hard questions in order to make sure they are pushing themselves harder, making the best use of resources, and delivering more results.

They also have the courage to ‘get real’ with funders, board members, or staff who are standing in the way of the mission and impact of the organization.

The best nonprofit leaders are unintimidated by the unique challenges of the nonprofit world.

Leading a nonprofit has become more complex and specialized because of government

regulations, reimbursements and compliance, and the sophistication of donors. This complexity requires founders to have specialized knowledge in areas as varied as audit, human resources, information technology, legal, accounting, and finance.

Nonprofits also have to be attractive to many different audiences, which include board members, funders, employees, volunteers, and beneficiaries. In addition, nonprofit founders must be part of politicians, rainmakers (generating revenues by brokering deals and attracting donors), and visionaries while extensively advocating for the mission on behalf of clients in the community and the legislature.

This can be a lot. Successful nonprofit founders manage to navigate this increasing complexity, all while having the courage to ask the big, hard questions and challenge themselves and their organization.

Pro tip: Effective nonprofit founders also successfully manage the complexity that comes with managing diversity. They ensure that all parties feel free to contribute their feedback and ideas – however novel or divergent – and to implement those ideas where possible and share in any resulting successes (which increases innovation).


9. Effective Communication

Nonprofit leaders often have to sell, convince, and sweet talk their way into free or low-cost opportunities, donations, and more. They could be negotiating everything from event space, food, and beverages, major gifts, to cheaper office rent. This is why it’s key that they’re effective communicators.

Furthermore, nonprofits must engage with an expansive set of stakeholders, all of whom are seeking different relationships and connections with the nonprofit: individuals, foundations, and corporates, the local government entities, various boards/committees, volunteers, and others as its key stakeholders.

Nonprofit leaders must learn to effectively navigate and build consensus amongst their multiple and diverse stakeholders.

Pro tip: Effective nonprofit founders are open to what people say, want to know, or perceive. They listen deeply to all, with curiosity and willingness to learn. They are able to create an environment of open sharing that gives others an opportunity to shine.

Traits of Successful Modern Nonprofit Founders


10. Adaptable/Agile

Nonprofit founders need to make dozens of decisions before they even finish their first morning cup of coffee. They need to be able to pivot and position quickly. They need to be informed, always ready, and willing to use the opportunities that present themselves.

Particularly in smaller organizations, the nonprofit founder has to be flexible and adaptable to address emerging issues and provide support where needed.

Great nonprofit founders also often have to shift what they spend their time on, due to the always-changing circumstances. One day they might be spending more time fundraising, while another they might be working with program leaders to pare down budgets.

Unlike the for-profit sector, nonprofits usually don’t have the depth of resources or separate teams or departments for the various functions of the organization. So, ultimately, a lot can fall on the nonprofit founder to oversee and manage (especially at the start) — from maintenance to ensuring operations run smoothly, no matter what.

This requires adaptability and agility.


Over To You

In an era of slow economic growth, tight budgets, and looming uncertainty and change, it’s essential to identify the skills and competencies necessary for successful nonprofit founders and leaders. Doing that ultimately helps to lower operating costs, secure public and private funding, and meet financial and business performance measures.

Inspiring and motivating others toward the achievement of a common vision, having an entrepreneurial spirit, building trusting and respectful relationships, proudly communicating, and seeking collaboration are all skills sought after for today’s nonprofit transformational leadership.

No one will possess all of the skills highlighted in this article, and especially not to the same degree, but we believe that you will be well served by considering each of these factors when choosing someone for the role or deciding to start a nonprofit yourself.

At Donorbox, we prioritize solutions that help nonprofit leaders like you increase their donations. We know that fundraising is key to successful nonprofit leadership. And we know that effective donation forms are a vital part of sustainable fundraising, so we built a solution responding to that need.

We also made it simple and affordable, ensuring a no-hassle process for everyone involved!

And check out our Nonprofit Blog for more free resources.

Raviraj heads the sales and marketing team at Donorbox. His growth-hacking abilities have helped Donorbox boost fundraising efforts for thousands of nonprofit organizations.

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