When I became involved with nonprofits—starting with volunteering, then board service, and finally board chair—I thought it would be an easy transition from my previous business leadership roles. I have been a small business owner and the president and CEO of an international for-profit business. I have even been a sergeant in the USMCR. How hard could my new leadership role as a nonprofit board chair be?


Well, I quickly learned a couple of lessons:

  1. Nonprofit leadership is not as easy as it looks and in fact has certain unique aspects to it that I had never considered or experienced.images-2
  2. Had I experienced these unique aspects of nonprofit leadership earlier in my career, I’m sure I would have been a much better for-profit CEO.
  3. To succeed, nonprofit leaders must effectively use several skills that many of us in the for-profit world either do not have, or seldom use.


What makes a nonprofit leader’s role harder than a for-profit leaders’? As I mentioned above, nonprofits present unique aspects that provide powerful teaching opportunities to those of us coming into the nonprofit world. For instance:

  1. Money, power, and promotion are not key motivators in a nonprofit, so a nonprofit leader has to appeal to the passion of the staff and volunteers instead. Business leaders, however, can use these three motivations all the time.
  2. For-profit organizations are businesses with some history, but usually embody little passion. One can lead them unemotionally. Leading a nonprofit, however, puts you in the position of “keeper of the flame” and everything the nonprofit stands for. There, everyone is passionate for the cause and feels a strong sense of emotional ownership in the nonprofit. This makes nonprofit leadership harder and often slows down processes and change.
  3. In a for-profit, positional authority is very powerful and you can pretty much get done whatever you wish. In a nonprofit, influential authority is much more powerful than positional authority and brings about sweeter results without the animosity and hard feelings positional authority can breed.
  4. In a for-profit, most people are there because they need a job. It is their career. Sure, some love what they do, but in a nonprofit everyone is there because they love what they do…and often don’t even get paid. It is their calling. Tie this in with the passion and the “keeper of the flame” concepts discussed above, and you quickly see that to be a successful nonprofit leader, one must be a patient collaborator, a convincing motivator, and a great communicator. 
  5. Decisions made in a for-profit organization certainly impact people, but often relate to delivering profitable results each quarter…impersonal, profitable results. However, for nonprofits, decisions directly impact people…often, the people who are lined up in front of your door each day.


There are other differences between nonprofit and for-profit leadership, but these are the biggest ones, the ones I think that make nonprofit leadership more challenging. What about you? What do you think makes nonprofit leadership harder than any other kind of leadership?

For more information about learning how to be a great nonprofit leader, and to learn about the other ICK FACTORS of Nonprofit Leadership, check out the new book BREAK THROUGH the Ick Factors of Nonprofit Leadership and learn how to improve your nonprofit board and build a better organization.