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The Importance of Leadership Skills in the Nonprofit Sector

Industry Advice Management

In 2020, leadership has become a primary topic of discussion throughout the world—both politically and within all types of organizations. While there’s no shortage of companies clamoring for leaders, leadership has become even more mission-critical in the nonprofit sector. Purpose-driven organizations have multiple stakeholders to influence and motivate. For a nonprofit to succeed, all constituents must be fully on board with the organization’s mission, vision, and results—and that’s no easy task.

If you’re considering a career in nonprofit management, leadership skills play an important role in your strength as a job candidate and may also impact your potential career trajectory. While few people are born leaders, there are paths for students to acquire and strengthen leadership skills and increase their mastery of the qualities that strong leaders demonstrate.


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The Difference Between Managing and Leading

“Managing and leading are often used as interchangeable terms, when they actually have very different meanings and roles,” says Eric J. McNulty, co-author of You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most, “Leading and managing are complementary skill sets. Good managers make an organization run well, while leading is about the human factors, including how you engage people, communicate a vision for the future, and get people to jump aboard.”

Currently, societal and economic turbulence puts even more emphasis on leadership skills. McNulty continues, “When things are stable, it’s much easier to coast with sound management. In good times, people are comfortable with the environment they’re operating in. It’s like driving a car—when all’s well, you don’t pay too much attention to the mechanical system. You just head down the road to your destination.” 

Nonprofit Leaders Will Continue to be in High Demand

McNulty foresees current economic and social challenges continuing into the future. “Leading is only going to get more important, as will the solutions and assistance that nonprofits offer society. Competition for resources will become harder, and organizations will need leaders who can clearly convey the larger mission and demonstrate measurable success in order to get their share of more limited funds and attract top talent.” 

While for-profit businesses also demand bold leaders, nonprofits face a unique set of challenges. For-profits typically operate with all paid staff. That paycheck creates a more straightforward path to getting employees on board with the organization’s direction. Purpose-driven organizations, however, have the added challenge of also engaging volunteers, donors, and community allies.

Learn about how job growth within nonprofits has been nearly 400% higher than for-profit businesses.

Three Qualities of Great Nonprofit Leaders

McNulty believes that emotional authenticity, contextual curiosity, and a commitment to personal connectivity are becoming the essential traits of successful leaders. Here’s a quick look at the meaning of each:

1. Emotional Authenticity

Leaders are grounded individuals who know their strengths and weaknesses intimately. They have confidence in their abilities and an understanding of what motivates them—and why they want to lead. Leaders are also keenly aware of what motivates people and also have a compelling sense of why others should follow them.

2. Contextual Curiosity

Nonprofit leaders have a continuous need to understand their organization’s operational context. They need to know what’s happening within the broader nonprofit sector and their organization’s niche. They know that mission and vision are affected by what’s going on around them. Leaders use context to play both offense and defense. 

3. Connective Commitment

Successful nonprofit leaders are great communicators and connectors. They build relationships at all levels within their organization, from volunteers to board members to those served by their mission. They also create an ongoing dialog with external stakeholders. In short, they know their various audiences and continually engage with them. Connected leaders are confident leaders.

Leadership Skills Can be Learned and Maximized

Here’s the good news: An advanced degree can give non-profit career seekers a clear advantage. However, all degree programs are not equal, and the choice has implications. With leadership skills in demand, students must choose a degree program that emphasizes leadership training in addition to the basics of sound management. 

“We’ve built the Northeastern University Master of Science in Nonprofit Management (NPM) program to help create the next generation of nonprofit leaders,” says Monica Borgida, lead faculty of the influential NPM degree program. “In addition to a focused leadership concentration, the program includes integrated experiential learning, which offers students the opportunity to work and learn alongside real-world leaders creating social change. This allows you to practice what you learn in real-time.”

“Our program provides a unique community,” Borgida continues. “Students learn from thought leaders and experts working directly in the field. They work hand-in-hand with nonprofit organizations of all sizes and gain experience solving current issues. The Boston area is home to some of the country’s most influential nonprofits, including hospitals, arts organizations, and human services providers. This proximity makes a difference in the opportunities that our program provides.”

Learn more about nonprofit organizations affiliated with Northeastern University

Develop Your Personal Leadership Factors 

Both McNulty and Borgida agree that the core reason people follow a leader is that they are competent and confident. Northeastern’s nonprofit management degree is specifically designed to teach students a broad range of skills that are essential for facing the challenges that purpose-driven organizations face in both stable and shifting environments. The core curriculum includes an in-depth exploration of nonprofit legal and governance issues, financial matters, fundraising and development, and strategic management. Mastering these core organizational components gives students confidence throughout their careers.

Northeastern also offers nonprofit management students a degree concentration focused on leadership and communications. The concentration includes electives designed to increase leadership skills and practical knowledge. Options within the concentration include:

  •     Organizational Communication
  •     Negotiation, Mediation, and Facilitation
  •     Leadership Development
  •     Ethical Leadership
  •     Strategy Development and Implementation
  •     Organizational Transformation
  •     Leading Teams

Accelerate Your Nonprofit Career with Leadership Skills Gained From an Advanced Degree 

Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Nonprofit Management program is designed to give you the knowledge, skills, and confidence that nonprofit careers demand. Organizations across the country are actively seeking to ensure their success by building high-potential leadership teams. If you have a passion for purpose-driven work, an advanced degree can take you to the next level. Northeastern is respected globally as a leader in experiential education. The program gives you the opportunity to gain actual work experience with leading nonprofits as you earn your degree.

Learn more about the advantages of earning your MS in Nonprofit Management at Northeastern University.

Learn more about Northeastern's MS in NPM