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5 leadership strategies to help nonprofit CEOs amplify their impact (and avoid burnout)

Jan 05, 2024

If nonprofits have this one thing, then they are set to succeed in 2024 — and that’s strong, confident leadership.

Over the past few years, nonprofits have navigated waves of uncertainty and change. It’s no secret that nonprofit leaders and their teams are stretched thin across myriad challenges. These mission-driven organizations are doing incredibly hard work with heart and business savvy. And the payoff is coming.

Better times are ahead for nonprofits that create and innovate. Leaders who embrace self-awareness, innovation and learning, and who surround themselves with the right people and empower their teams, will be able to serve more people in more meaningful ways.

Strategies to help nonprofit leaders succeed in 2024

In 2024, nonprofit leaders who use any of these five strategies can amplify their impact in the world:

1. Hire a coach

Tired. Overwhelmed. Overcommitted. These are the challenges of many nonprofit leaders.

In addition, the nonprofit landscape is always changing and requires leaders to constantly pivot, adapt and course correct.

Take 2023 as an example. Artificial intelligence (AI) hit the industry in full force. Many nonprofit fundraising teams had to quickly learn and leverage new digital tools to create effective appeals and fight for dollars. Meanwhile, organizations that rely on public funding operated under the cloud of a potential government shutdown. They had to prepare for a sudden halt in revenue — and a potential increase in constituent demand, should federal funding shut off.

In sports, music and other fields, top performers have coaches. They have someone to call what they don’t see, give them candid and productive feedback and help them develop critical skills.

In order to lead game-changing organizations, nonprofit leaders need help, too. An executive or leadership coach can support leaders with navigating change, staying focused on goals, making hard decisions and being their best selves for the job.

2. Nurture strong teams

Nearly three out of four nonprofits had open positions in 2023, according to the National Council of Nonprofits. Nonprofits are doing essential work without all the human resources they need. That means strong teams are essential in order to operate at their fullest potential.

Great leaders inspire great performances. Nonprofit leaders commit to developing teams and behaviors that build cultural and operational excellence. Strong teams have a shared vision of success. They trust each other, engage in healthy disagreements, are in constant communication to review performance and course correct when necessary. And most importantly, they value having a good time on the job.

Culture may sound like “soft” stuff. But it’s the fuel that moves organizations through challenging times. When culture is strong, teams have trust and accountability and are committed to the right outcomes. Strong teams welcome healthy conflict, which drives operational excellence.

People who are committed to the organization and held accountable for outcomes are often happier at work. As people stay (and grow) in their jobs, organizations benefit from their experience and service.

Culture and operational excellence are intertwined. Spending time on team building and talent management is not a distraction from the mission — it’s how nonprofits realize their visions.

3. Stop overcommitting

Nonprofits are perpetually understaffed and underpaid. It’s no wonder nonprofit employees, and especially leaders, suffer from burnout.

In 2024, nonprofit leaders can use three strategies to stop overcommitting their time. They can:

  • Delegate to team members: Delegating takes discipline, but it’s an important way to build new leaders and strengthen teams overall. To start, identify tasks or meetings that can be handed off, then practice letting go. Establish check-ins or milestones to increase everyone’s comfort with delegation — and to coach staff toward the right outcomes.
  • Outsource functions or tasks: Outsourcing can relieve leaders of tasks they aren’t enthusiastic about or simply don’t have the capacity for. Nonprofits can also use outsourcing to pick up specialized expertise that doesn’t exist on staff.
  • Say no: Running a mission-driven organization is difficult, profound work. To avoid burnout, leaders must learn to say no. They need to get crystal clear on their organizational priorities, keep the main things the main things and learn to say no to tasks that don’t align with the organization’s priorities.

4. Get schooled in AI   

AI isn’t a fad. Nonprofit leaders need to develop basic proficiency in AI (at a minimum) so they can build it into organizational strategies and develop guidelines and policies.

Every organization will approach AI differently. Smaller nonprofits can use it as a force multiplier to pick up efficiencies in their operations. Larger nonprofits can create more intimate interactions across an expansive donor or constituent base. The applications for generative AI run the gamut. Leaders need to understand AI to see its potential and pick and prioritize the right applications.

Leaders also need an understanding of the risks. AI has the potential to upend workflows or entire departments, so leaders need to navigate change management. They also need to decide who is responsible for AI, how it should be governed and how to manage AI-generated content.

Put simply: Leaders can’t make informed decisions about AI unless they understand AI. Technology will have a major and increasing influence on nonprofits, so leaders need to school up. And they need a plan for continuing education or support, since technology changes so rapidly.

5. Network outside your comfort zone

There’s no rule that says, “nonprofit leaders have to stay in the nonprofit lane.” Nonprofit CEOs should expand their business networks to leverage the learnings and resources of others and to find new ways to serve. They should explore adjacent sectors, emerging technologies and other territories to spark creative thinking.

To start, engage with a group or two that’s outside the norm for the organization’s mission. For example, the CEO of a food bank could attend a Chamber of Commerce meeting or a retail-focused event.

Go and look for inspiration. Create opportunities to gain a fresh perspective and expand the old Rolodex. Remember, anyone could be a potential volunteer, funder or partner. Sometimes, it’s better to cast a wider net.

How Wipfli can help

Change is challenging, but it can also be exciting. Nonprofits with strong leadership, finance and technology foundations can thrive through change and execute their most important missions. And we can help.

As one of the most experienced nonprofit advisory firms in the country, Wipfli knows how to support nonprofits. We specialize in nonprofit compliance and regulations, tax and accounting, executive coaching, people management, digital strategy and more. Let’s make a difference together. Contact us today to learn more.

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Kathleen DuBois, M.A.
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