Advancing Philanthropy

Senior Leadership Teams and How They Make (or Break) Nonprofits

An organization successfully executing its mission and serving its clients at the highest level takes collaboration from all members of the team. But building a culture to promote such teamwork—especially in nonprofits, which includes guiding employees and volunteers—sits firmly with the senior leadership team. Therefore, an organization is only as good as its leadership.

What does the ideal senior leadership team in a nonprofit look like? How can an organization achieve success through its senior leadership? Studies of both for-profit and nonprofit organizations offer some clues, as do insights from nonprofit professionals on what has worked—and hasn’t—in their organizations.

What Is a Senior Leadership Team?

Yvette GylesTypically, a nonprofit senior leadership team consists of the CEO/executive director of an organization plus leads of key departments (such as development, programs, finance, marketing/communications, and operations). Yvette Gyles, a director with The Management Centre in London, suggests that senior leadership team makeup depends on the strategic vision of the organization, and what it aims to achieve.

“There are no formulas, and you can’t prescribe this based on a simple measure of how big an organization is (whether that’s in income terms or people terms),” she says. “Also, the right size of the team may be right for right now, but that can change. It is important for leadership teams to review this and be clear on what unique value they bring to the work of the organization. And keep reviewing.”

Kevin FoyleSenior leadership teams are not just for large organizations, says Kevin Foyle, MBA, CFRE, vice president of development and public affairs at The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. “All nonprofits, regardless of size, need to have a defined senior leadership team who are assembled to define the strategic direction of the organization,” Foyle says.

Peggy OutonEven with 75 percent of nonprofits employing 10 or fewer staff members, organizations can still benefit from a senior leadership team, and even if one person leads multiple functions in the organization, says Peggy Outon, assistant vice president of community engagement and leadership development at Robert Morris University. In smaller organizations, the cross-training of leaders is even more critical, should a crisis strike. Outon cites an example of an organization where the development director suddenly died, and colleagues scrambled to complete several grant reports due soon after.

A true senior leadership team is not just a group of direct reports to the chief executive, however. A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) notes, “An executive team takes on tasks that stand apart from the work individual members do as department heads. An executive team collaborates to shape organization-wide decisions and shares responsibility for the organization’s results.”1

In the SSIR piece, authors Libbie Landles-Cobb, Henry Barmeier, and Kirk Kramer detail the results of a self-assessment survey of 362 nonprofit executive team members, plus interviews with additional leaders, executive coaches, and academics. Drawing also on their experience interacting with more than 200 nonprofit executive teams participating in The Bridgespan Group’s Leading for Impact programs, they distilled five questions to take leadership teams to greatness:

  1. Is the CEO effectively managing the executive team?
  2. Is the executive team focused on the most important work?
  3. Does the executive team’s composition support its ability to do the work?
  4. Do meeting and communication processes support superior decisions and execution?
  5. Does the team’s dynamic foster the right conversations and results?

Focusing on Priorities

A senior leadership team should be able to function as a high-performing team. That is defined as a team or group, in person or virtual, focused on a clearly identified goal and achieving above-average results (Keller & Meaney, 2017).2

Therefore, a senior leadership team needs to be comprised of individually talented members who also work as a cohesive team. Successful teams include individuals willing to play various roles throughout the process—leading on specific projects and serving as team members on others.

Who should not be on a high-performing team is someone who keeps their head down, someone who is afraid, or someone who will first throw you under the bus rather than take accountability (Folkman, 2016).3 High-performing teams have a sense of belonging amongst the members as well as an understanding that others have trust in them.

Asa TateHow is this trust exhibited? Senior leaders should actively seek feedback from staff, says Asa Tate, senior director of mission advancement at Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington and president of the AFP Advancement Northwest chapter.

“Listening is not just a key fundraising skill; it’s also a powerful leadership tool. Seeking input and advice from staff through team retreats, strategy meetings, supervisor check-ins, and staff-wide surveys informs leadership team agendas and highlights opportunities for increased collaboration across teams while clarifying opportunities and threats on the horizon,” Tate says.

Jermaine SmithThe CEO/executive director needs to ensure the senior team focuses on high-level issues to maximize efficiency, says Jermaine Smith, regional corporate philanthropy officer with the American Red Cross in New Orleans.

“An effective CEO/ED can’t be everywhere and therefore must rely on a high-functioning team to provide great, relevant information to make the most effective decisions for the organization’s short- and long-term viability,” Smith says.

Peter DruryAlso important is focusing the organizational team past the current year, adds Peter Drury, vice president of mission advancement for Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington.

“Goals set across years (like three-year goals and budget, rather than only one year) elevate everybody’s game,” Drury says. “Annual goal-setting and budgeting creates unintended consequences. … It makes us focus on the wrong things.”

Building a Culture of Collaboration

In addition to establishing organizational priorities for focus, the chief executive must also set a tone of collaboration for the senior leadership team and the organization.

“The CEO is setting the tone, all the time,” Drury says. “It is subtle. It is powerful. It is always happening.”

Gyles agrees that CEOs can effectively set the tone by modeling: “Show in your own behavior what you expect of others, and not expecting there to be different rules for you just because you are at the top.”

Building a productive work culture also takes continual focus and redirection, says Foyle. “If you are able to build a culture of trust where leaders become selfless and focused on the overall good of the organization, productivity will prevail,” he says.

Foyle and Drury both cite New York Times best-seller The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni (Jossey-Bass, 2002) for its practical guidance related to team dynamics, even for those not currently in a senior leadership role. In the book, Lencioni cites absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results as the five root causes of team dysfunction. While written with corporate senior leadership teams in mind, it easily applies to the nonprofit sector.

Outon says focus on “a culture of candor” is critical—that leaders should know what they are going to achieve and share the responsibility and solutions with their teams.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Nonprofit leaders interviewed agree that transparent communications are paramount. The more open leaders are with information and decisions, the more included team members feel.

Drury says decisions of the senior team should be communicated with staff and volunteers in the following ways: “Transparent with respect for confidentiality, candid with respect for dignity, bold with respect for humility.”

Foyle thinks that we do not communicate enough, suggesting formal vehicles such as regular meetings and emails and informal methods such as hallway conversations or texts.

“At one point in my career, I made the assumption that my senior leadership team was equally sharing information out to their various teams,” Foyle says. “It was only later that I learned only certain teams were getting the information and others were getting the information through a skewed filter. As such, I broadened the team who would be given such information beyond the senior leadership team so that more staff and volunteers would be informed in a consistent manner.”

Gyles says being able to articulate messages in different ways for different audiences is a key skill for leaders. Knowing when to communicate in person, on the phone, or electronically and how others on your team like to communicate can make a difference.

Working Through Team Dynamics and Performance Issues

Also critical for senior leaders is the ability to address team dynamics and performance challenges in an organization. Tate says this requires thoughtful and intentional evaluation of the organization’s needs to keep them aligned with the right talent.

“A CEO must identify the challenges, keep them at the forefront, and employ evaluation and measurement tools to address them,” she says. “This leads to a clear understanding of what success looks like and the creation of a road map forward.”

Smith agrees that active monitoring of both team dynamics and performance year-round—not only at predetermined checkpoints or the end of a fiscal year—keeps leadership and the organization on track.

“Team dynamics don’t change overnight. They are typically built through habit over time, and neither building nor changing a culture can happen quickly,” he says. “Similarly, proper forecasting will enable a CEO or ED to monitor progress throughout the year, ensuring that one can at least identify yellow flags before it’s time to break out the red one.”

Gyles says leaders often have the same worries as their managers: “How do I get the most from my team? How can I manage difficult situations? I think for CEOs, this gets magnified. The pressure is higher because any bad behaviors or poor performance is much more visible. The most effective leaders I have seen are the ones who are willing and able to challenge issues head-on and are able to give effective, useful feedback to address problems when they arise. If left to fester, performance issues in senior teams can become toxic for the rest of the organization.”

Recruiting Future and Diverse Leaders

A leadership team should also consider the legacy of the organization and what they are doing to prepare the next group of leaders to continue the work. Outon says there is a coming wave of retirement setting up a time to get this right.

It is not enough to recruit diversity through word of mouth. Consider reaching out on campus to students of color who have skill sets you desire for your nonprofit.

“Generation X is half the size of the boomers and millennials,” she says. “Leaders will be commodities. It’s an opportunity to give chances to those who may have been closed out before. Nonprofits need more open thinking and to be open to the possibilities.”

Mentoring professionals should be a priority, not only in building a pipeline of younger professionals to rise into leadership but also to ensure leadership teams are diverse.

“A true commitment to diversity takes work, not lip service,” says Tate, a former mentee and now colleague of Drury’s. “This may mean investing in an internship program that is specifically targeted toward people of color. Paid internships make a huge difference in who’s in your candidate pool. It may require a different HR screening lens and messaging that values transferable skills rather than secondary degrees or certifications that often screen out diverse applicants.”

Smith agrees that a focus on recruiting is needed: “It is not enough to recruit diversity through word of mouth. Consider reaching out on campus to students of color who have skill sets you desire for your nonprofit.” He cautions against approaching an individual of an underrepresented demographic and attempting to shoehorn them into a role simply to make a diverse hire.

Along with focusing on recruitment, Foyle says it is important to think about the support and resources diverse employees need to be successful once in their roles.


Senior leadership teams can be beneficial for nonprofits of all sizes. With goals of high performance; addressing issues such as collaboration, communications, and team dynamics and performance; and diversifying and preparing for future leadership, you can have a dynamic team at your own organization.


1. “How to Create Better Nonprofit Executive Teams” by Libbie Landles-Cobb, Henry Barmeier, and Kirk Kramer. Stanford Social Innovation Review (Oct. 17, 2018).

2. “High-Performing Teams: A Timeless Leadership Topic” by Scott Keller and Mary Meaney. McKinsey Quarterly (June 2017).

3. “5 Ways to Build a High-Performance Team” by Joseph Folkman. Forbes (April 13, 2016).

Dave TinkerDave Tinker, CFRE, FAFP, is vice president of advancement at ACHIEVA and an adjunct professor of informatics in Muskingum University’s Master of Information Strategy, Systems & Technology program. AFP honored him as one of its first Distinguished Fellows. Dave also is an AFP Master Trainer and received the Outstanding Fund Raising Executive award from the AFP Western Pennsylvania Chapter.

Lisa M. ChmiolaLisa M. Chmiola, CFRE, is director of gift planning for the Catholic Community Foundation, Archdiocese of New Orleans and an adjunct instructor in Rice University’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. She also is an AFP Master Trainer.

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