Challenges of Leading in Nonprofit Organizations: Myths, Meaning, and Motivations

leading in nonprofit organizations

Since 2008, the American Express Nonprofit Leadership Academy has been developing emerging leaders in the nonprofit sector.

In 2010, American Express embarked on a research effort with us to advance the understanding of, and to promote excellence in, the field of nonprofit leadership by focusing on the needs of emerging leaders, and so interlinked research projects were conducted. Survey and narrative data were gathered from current and emerging nonprofit leaders. Below are the critical themes from this work:

  • Overall, individuals at every level feel a sense of purpose in the work they do. However, individuals at lower levels are more concerned about pay than are those at higher levels;
  • Fewer individuals are willing to take it on faith that they are making a positive difference; they want tangible evidence of the difference they and their organizations are making;
  • Individuals may be more married to a cause than they are to an organization. The new workforce is willing to change organizations if they don’t believe they’re having an impact;
  • Clear organizational structures and hierarchy are seen as useful to the extent that they contribute to development, career progression, learning opportunities, and regular feedback. However, when structure and hierarchy created obstacles to doing the work or were too inflexible to allow for work/life balance accommodations or inhibited creativity, structure and hierarchy were viewed negatively;
  • Individuals may be more willing to stay with an organization if there are learning and development opportunities; or, conversely, to leave if learning and development opportunities are not prioritized by the organization and its leaders;
  • We need to expand how we think about talent development and utilization to include a sectorial perspective and find ways to support it at that level; and
  • With the increase in mobile technology use (such as smartphones) the lines between work time and personal time are often blurry. Individuals, particularly younger workers, increasingly have the desire to choose how they manage the boundaries between work and nonwork roles, relationships, and responsibilities.

Download Research Report

Download our full research report to understand the challenges of leading in nonprofit organizations and our recommendations for increasing engagement and motivation of nonprofit sector employees.

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March 16, 2011
About the Author(s)
Sarah Stawiski
Sarah is the Insights and Impact Group Director at CCL, where she helps clients use data to improve their programs and show evidence of impact in order to achieve greater results. She holds a BA in Psychology from the University of California in San Diego and an MA and PhD in Applied Social Psychology from Loyola University Chicago.

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