Leadership Matters

Seven key leadership roles nonprofits will need to succeed

By Sarah Matsushita

Transformations in the Canadian labour market will require changes in the way organizations hire workers. Thirty-six per cent of employers in Canada have difficulty filling positions due to lack of suitable talent, ManpowerGroup Inc. found in their 2017 Talent Shortage report.

Yet in the nonprofit sector, a new report from Nonprofit HR found that 64 per cent of organizations do not have a formal strategy for recruiting employees and 56 per cent have no plans to start. Added to this pressure is the fact that in the next five years, about 60 per cent of nonprofit leaders plan to retire, according to a 2013 survey of the nonprofit sector by the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN).

Attracting and retaining leaders is especially challenging for the nonprofit sector, due to less competitive compensation packages, workload and stress, limited room for advancement and a low profile in the broader community.

So, do new graduates and aspiring leaders have the right leadership skills to succeed in their careers and do nonprofit employers know the kind of people they need for the future – and have the pipelines to find them?

In its latest report, Leading our Future: Leadership Competencies for Ontario’s nonprofit sector, the ONN tackles one of the major gaps in the future of the sector: leadership planning. Nonprofits and charities play a vital role in the social and economic development of our communities and Canadians rely on nonprofits and charities as service providers, community supports and a way to be engaged in their communities.

Who is the nonprofit sector?

There are over 160,000 nonprofit and charitable organizations across the country, employing two million people, according to the 2004 National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations. Collectively, nonprofits and charities are a major economic force, contributing 8.1 per cent to Canada’s GDP, more than the retail and construction industries combined, according to Statistics Canada, 2009.

These organizations have staff sizes ranging from one employee to hundreds of workers, covering a range of subsectors, from sports and arts nonprofits, health service charities, environmental, education, research organizations and much more. The type of leadership needed varies by the kinds of services or activities provided in communities, but it is also determined by organizational life cycles – whether the organization is starting out, expanding or reaching a critical juncture for change. It also matters where the nonprofit is operating, in urban or rural locales, and the geographic scope of its mission – whether local, provincial, national or broader.

Outside forces and pressures

ONN’s research found there are unique pressures facing the nonprofit sector, including an aging workforce, increasing inequality and urbanization, racing to keep up with technological changes and young people not seeing the sector as a career path. Precarious work is on the rise in general, and this is exacerbated in the nonprofit sector by many positions being contract work because of short-term and unstable funding.

Leadership is a role, not a position

It is critical to understand that, within the nonprofit sector, leadership is not necessarily fixed at an executive level, but is dispersed throughout an organization, and shared across staff, including the executive director or CEO, and board of directors and other volunteers. With organizations often having high public profiles, nonprofit leaders also play a broader role in their communities.

Seven leadership competencies needed for the future

To successfully meet the challenges and opportunities nonprofits face in the future, the ONN research identified seven key competencies needed:

  • Be a builder of strong, adaptive and diverse organizations that embodies a clear vision, mission and values.
  • Be a thinker that anticipates change, understands dynamics, assesses data and analyzes situations and environments.
  • Be a mentor to support growth and development in employees and volunteers and a model of perseverance, patience and resilience in a complex, uncertain environment.
  • Be a storyteller and champion of the mission-driven and value-based work of the nonprofit and the sector to clearly establish a compelling identity and profile.
  • Be an innovator that promotes learning and takes reasonable risks to adapt and adjust to the changing environment.
  • Be a connector to identify and develop critical relationships, partnerships, networks and collaborates within and across sectors.
  • Be a steward that manages the nonprofit’s human, capital and financial resources, accepts responsibility for accountability and transparency and introduces technology and management strategies to strengthen capacity for the long term.

An important learning that the research highlights is that different types of leaders will be needed at different points in an organization’s lifecycle. For example, a new nonprofit just getting its feet on the ground may need a “connector” to identify and establish key relationships to get started on the organization’s mission. An established nonprofit that needs to invigorate how it serves its mission may need an “innovator” to read a changing environment and embrace opportunities to do things differently.

What this means for both emerging and established leaders is an exciting chance for lifetime learning to develop the skills and mindsets of each competency over the course of their careers. The nonprofit sector is fertile learning ground for people to kickstart their careers, or join from other sectors to hone a range of skillsets far beyond any stereotypes of do-gooders without professional skills.

There are unique pressures facing the nonprofit sector, including an aging workforce, increasing inequality and urbanization, racing to keep up with technological changes and young people not seeing the sector as a career path.

Three ways to make this happen

The path to leadership development in the nonprofit sector is not straightforward. It will take a robust set of actions to create an enabling environment for leadership development. That means programs and supports to cultivate leaders, a nonprofit sector that is receptive to new HR practices, and resources to support leadership pipelines – including funding. This must happen at three levels: organizational, sectoral and systems change.

Organizations need to be intentional about the skillsets they need and evaluate leadership competencies with their staff and board. They need to review their HR policies and practices to promote leadership, and ensure there are resources allocated for training and development.

At the sectoral level, recommendations include establishing a panel of experienced and emerging leaders to champion research and strategy, creating and promoting a resource bank of research, tools and programs and working with universities and colleges to providing sector-specific training.

Systems level attention is needed for reliable and accurate workforce data from workforce planning boards, Statistics Canada and more data sources. The sector needs to advocate for public policy that enables decent work, working conditions and social policies that ensure dignified and supportive work environments, and create a compelling case for sustainable funding for leadership development and organizational sustainability over the longer term.

Championing the value of the sector

Future leaders will need to be able to actively promote the public value of the nonprofit sector, as well as the personal benefits of engaging with nonprofits through volunteerism or work. With stiff competition from the corporate and government sectors for better salaries and benefits, plus the growing social entrepreneur field blurring the lines of social purpose-driven work, organizations need to keep their edge in attracting leaders. Telling the story of why the nonprofit sector matters and why leaders don’t want to miss the chance to shape it will be vital.

Continuing to support vibrant and thriving communities will take a healthy nonprofit sector that is intentionally developing leaders with the right skillsets to meet the changing needs of the people, and the communities, it serves. 


Sarah Matsushita is the communications and network engagement manager of the Ontario Nonprofit Network.