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Effective Leadership in Not-For-Profit Organizations

Statement of Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to explore the ever-changing leadership styles of effective not-for-profit organizational leaders. The world is quickly changing, and the rate of change is accelerating due to emerging technologies, research, and population increase. With these world changes come changing needs of humanity and changing demands for not-for-profit organizations. This paper explores how effective not-for-profit can remain effective in this changing world environment. First, the moral challenges of leadership are explored. Effective leaders must retain moral standards according to basic human morals, community morals, and their specific organization’s morals. Next, methods for effectively motivating volunteers and for effectively self-motivate volunteers, are explored. Not-for-profits frequently use high ratios of volunteers to perform services, and those volunteers must remain motivated not only by organizational leadership, but also by themselves. Volunteer motivation is further explored in depth by examining how leadership culture change can foster self-motivation among volunteers. A culture change among organizational leadership often trickles down to the volunteer level. Effective leadership leads to effective volunteering and performance. A culture change among organizational leadership also encourages the organization’s leaders to serve as an example for volunteers, thus raising the self-motivation and effectiveness of the volunteer corps. After the in-depth examination of organizational culture change and volunteer motivation, additional conceptual building blocks of effective not-for-profit leadership are explored, including values-based leadership and collaborative leadership styles. Specific qualities of effective leaders are examined and shown to be crucial for effectively leading modern not-for-profit organizations. Finally, the application of emotional intelligence skills to effective modern not-for-profit leadership and decision making is explored. Leaders who understand their roles and the roles of their leadership teams, organizational employees, volunteers, donors, and beneficiaries become the most effective leaders. Understanding the emotions of those same people within and outside the organization can ensure long-term success in fundraising and community status. This paper concludes with an overall summarization of the literature review and how everything examined can be pooled together to ensure the most effective leadership possible. The end of the paper will also summarize why this research is relevant in today’s world and how it can be applied in the future.

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Literature Review

Before exploring the methods, styles, and roles of effective leaders, the moral challenges of leadership must be understood. According to Emler, there are seven key challenges of leadership: (1) resisting temptation of personal gain at collective expense, (2) resisting tyranny, (3) managing justice, (4) pursuing a moral mandate, (5) avoiding mission failure, (6) minimizing collateral damage, and (7) doing good (Emler, 32). Effective leaders must strive to live up to and fulfill each of these challenges to ensure the success of their not-for-profit organization. However, before criticizing a leader who does not impeccably live up to these standards, we must acknowledge that these standards are an ideal, not the norm, and that a failure to overcome one of these challenges does not make a leader inadequate or immoral. Additionally, when discussing morality, we must also make two assumptions to remain within reasonable bounds of morals: (1) humans are social animals and (2) social organization requires hierarchy (Emler, 33). If we take these two assumptions and combine them with the seven moral challenges stated above, we begin to see how leaders are a natural result of human nature, and leaders must have morals in order to effectively lead and retain social order within a social organization, including not-for-profits. In a related sense, leaders must also abide by ethical standards because their decisions affect their followers (Emler, 34). With the understanding of the above aspects of human nature and ethical standards, we can discuss each of the seven moral challenges. First, leaders must resist the temptation of personal gain at collective expense. With leadership comes authority and power within organizational hierarchy, and with that comes the trust of the organization. Effective leaders must work to earn and keep the trust of their organization and other followers, remaining honest despite the many inevitable opportunities for personal gain. This is perhaps the simplest, yet most trying challenge of the seven (Emler, 36). Secondly, effective leaders must resist tyranny over the organization. Again, with positions of leadership comes power over the organization and its members. Effective leaders must resist the tendency to become overbearing and abuse their influence, possibly resulting in alienating or embarrassing members of the organization with little chance of consequence to the leader. Leaders must remain accountable to themselves to be compassionate toward their followers instead of hostile (Emler, 37). The next two challenges, managing justice and pursuing a moral mandate, are fundamentally related. Effective leaders must treat their organization’s members, as well as volunteers, beneficiaries, and donors, with fairness and within their organization’s moral umbrella. Every organization has moral standards that must be met by anyone associated with the organization, and it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that any decisions made meet this standard and are just (Emler, 37-38). The next two challenges are also fundamentally related, sometimes reaching a point of diametric opposition. Effective leaders must avoid the risk of mission failure yet avoid collateral damage. While these two challenges are not always on opposing sides of the spectrum, it can frequently be difficult to effectively achieve an organization’s goals without harming anyone in the process. Organizational leaders must strive to ride the line between meeting their goals and keeping all associates content by keeping vigilant watch for any unintended consequences of decisions or actions (Emler, 39-40). One major problem that arises with most not-for-profit organizations is that the leaders of the organization are traditionally not managers, but a collective of individuals passionate about a particular cause. For example, small sports clubs are traditionally led by sportsmen, not professional managers. Because of this fact, not-for profit organizations need supportive tools and templates to successfully avoid mission failure (Voracek et al., 433). Finally, the last challenge can be treated as a culmination of the previous six: do good. Effective leaders must, obviously, do good, despite having to fulfill many obligations that frequently are at odds with each other. The best leaders successfully strive to overcome the first six challenges and, as a result, fulfill the last (Emler, 40).

With an understanding of the moral challenges of leadership and how effective leaders must act, we can examine a leader’s effects of other members of their not-for-profit organizations. Specifically, we can examine how an effective leader can properly motivate and encourage self-motivation of volunteers. To be able to effectively lead volunteers, we must separate the initial motivation of volunteers from what make volunteers continue to work with the organization. A key difficulty for leaders is maintaining motivation without applying pressure to volunteers, and keeping those volunteers focused on organizational needs without losing motivation, even though some of those needs are not directly linked to the main focus of the not-for-profit organization. One simple method of addressing this dilemma is to separate volunteers and/or duties into general roles and specific roles (van Schie et al., 1572). General roles are those related to the cause of the organization. Volunteers who are performing general roles are usually passionate about the cause, find it interesting, or find it meaningful or important. The organization can keep these volunteers motivated and self-motivated by retaining a large pool of volunteers and calling on specific volunteers periodically, as opposed to frequently. Specific roles are those related to keeping the organization running and growing. Volunteers who are performing specific roles should be people who maintain a personal mission in line with that of the organization. These volunteers can be motivated and self-motivated by the desire to keep the organization, and therefore themselves, growing and successful (van Schie et al., 1574). Additionally, volunteers can be self-motivated by expanding leadership responsibilities to the core group of the organization (Allen et al., 1). There are five characteristics of volunteer roles that should be maintained to keep volunteers self-motivated: (1) autonomy, (2) task identity, (3) task variety, (4) task significance, and (5) feedback. Volunteer roles that are somewhat autonomous allow the volunteer to complete tasks in their own way, resulting in a higher sense of accomplishment. A dominant-subordinate approach to leadership is not conducive to building autonomous tasking. The growth of team-building and collaboration within not-for-profit organizations shows there is a recognition of the inadequacy of hierarchal models (Allen et al., 2). Roles that contain task identity (the degree to which a task involves a complete piece of work) also raise the sense of accomplishment, as the volunteer can see the fruits of their labor. Roles that contain task variety serve to rejuvenate the volunteer, as changing tasks keeps the volunteer engaged and interested rather than bored with monotony. Roles that involve task significance again raise the sense of accomplishment, as the volunteer feels important and gratified with their work. Finally, feedback on the accomplishments of the volunteer keep the volunteer motivated to continue performing tasks critical to the organization (van Schie et al., 1575, 1585-1586).

Now that we understand basically how to motivate and self-motivate volunteers, we can further examine this topic through the lens of an ever-changing organization and its adapting leadership. To understand how an organization’s leadership must handle changing culture, we must first acknowledge the main conundrum organizational culture change: maintaining a focus on control and efficiency while encouraging creativity and changeability (Schreiber et al., 2). Organizations must utilize structured leadership to effectively foster adaptive leadership. If organizational change is ambiguous, tension increases within the organization due to lack of direction, and the end of the process often results in more rigid policies that resist any change whatsoever (Schreiber et al., 4). In fact, individuals not in leadership positions may actively search for structure and control for familiarity (Schreiber et al., 5). Therefore, leaders who are nurturing organizational culture change must implement a vision and act on that vision via selective staffing, role-modeling, and socialization despite the inevitable obstacles to acceptance by members of the organization resistant to change, and the many obstacles inherent in a structured organization (Schreiber et al., 6-8). To overcome these obstacles, effective leaders must realize a fundamental aspect of not-for-profit organizations: donors are critical to the success of any not-for-profit organization (Schreiber et al., 14). Key donors must not be alienated by changes to the organizational culture or staff and must remain ensured that the organization is continuing to fulfill the roles expected by the donors. Along these lines, founders of not-for-profits must assist incoming leadership in developing relationships with key donors, in maintaining the values of the organization throughout the change process, and whom within the organization can be relied upon to step up in times of difficulty (Schreiber et al., 15). Specific roles and tasks within the organization must be maintained throughout the change process, or the risk of deterioration into chaos becomes apparent. Removal of administrative structure leads to indecisiveness amongst leadership, resulting in staff and volunteers becoming aimless, frustrated, and potentially discouraged to the point of leaving the organization (Schreiber et al., 22). Eventually, the staff and volunteers that have endured these difficulties revert to their previous familiar methods and structure, negating any progression toward organizational culture change (Schreiber et al., 23). If the organizational leadership does not address these regressions in due time, members of the organization can even become distrustful of and aggressive toward leadership and each other (Schreiber et al., 25). Effective leaders of not-for-profit organizations must be able to balance administrative and adaptive functions to progress the organization through the culture change process (Schreiber et al., 34).

With the understanding of the moral challenges of leadership and how to motivate volunteers and foster change with an ever-changing world, we can implement additional conceptual building blocks of effective not-for-profit leadership. First, we can address the question of who can be effective leaders. The answer, simply, is anyone who wants to be. More specifically, modern effective leaders do not necessarily have personal traits that make the stand out, such as charisma or physical stature. Rather, modern effective leaders maintain positive relationships with organizational members, donors, volunteers, and other associates. Modern effective leaders foster intelligent task structure and a constructive implementation of power and authority, all while encouraging continuing innovation and creativity (Osula et al, 88). Effective leaders must be able to use all four styles of organizational leadership, depending on the person being led and how they most effectively react. The four styles are: (1) telling, (2) coaching, (3) participating, and (4) delegating. Telling style consists of a leader telling a follower exactly what to do. Coaching style should be used when the follower is motivated but needs assistance in performing tasks. Participating style should be used when the follower has competence but needs motivation. Delegating style should be used when the follower is competent and motivated and can essentially be left to perform tasks autonomously. Every member of an organization is different, and these leadership styles should carefully be tailored to the individual follower (Osula et al, 88). As stated in the previous paragraph, effective leaders must be able to foster change within an organization to survive. To maintain and grow a successful not-for-profit organization, the leadership must commit to training and financial support of personnel. Over time, the organization will become more efficient, strengthen its identity, and be able to successfully establish programs to support its mission (Allen et al., 7). Not-for-profit organizations also must regularly transform to maintain fiscal responsibilities and retain donors, survive continuous competition, and remain efficient with emerging technologies (Osula et al, 89-90). Effective leaders must have a wide range of skills, in both the technical and social realms, and must be able to foster continuing organizational transformational while supporting the organization’s members with proper methods (Osula et al, 91). Effective leaders must fulfill these qualities all while keeping the organization’s values and personal ethics intact. Effective leaders must be humble yet authoritative, committed to trust, and foster integrity (Osula et al, 93).

To effectively utilize the basic conceptual building blocks of leadership, effective leaders must be able to apply emotional intelligence skills within the framework of their organizations. The modern not-for-profit is essentially a knowledge-based entity, and the primary deliverable within such an entity is a good decision. The most effective leaders are those who can properly evaluate and implement quality decisions while maintaining the proper balance of emotion and rationality, with emotional intelligence serving as the bridge between the two (Hess et al., 203-204). Generally, not-for-profit leaders value conflict-management and inspiration over the more typical for-profit values of time management and self-knowledge (Hess et al., 204). This preference is likely due to the voluntary nature of not-for-profit organizations and the desire to motivate volunteers and keep the peace. Effective not-for-profit leaders must act as inspirer, developer, and change agent for their organizations (Hess et al., 205). These are very different roles that require different sets of technical skills and emotional intelligence. Additionally, every not-for-profit is unique in its challenges and their leaders must be able to navigate these challenges and implement the most effective course of action (Hess et al., 206). Effective leaders must be able to use their emotional intelligence skills to understand the emotions of others within and outside the organization and properly inspire, motivate, and challenge them (Hess et al., 207). Effective leaders must be able to assess the appropriate roles of themselves and their organizational members in making key decisions or performing certain tasks. Different members of the organization are likely to be better suited for a particular decision or task, and effective leaders must be able to assign that decision or task to the best person, rather than doing everything themselves. By effectively distributing decisions and tasks to appropriate personnel, trust is built between the leader and other members (Hess et al., 209). If all members of the organization maintain leadership roles, “webs of influence” are created instead of chains of command. This allows core personnel to address organizational change and increases the capacity of the organization to solve problems (Allen et al., 7; Voracek et al., 435). Effective leaders also must assess the effects that key decisions will have on the organization and its members. A decision’s effect on the feelings of members and values of the organization must be analyzed in the decision-making process (Hess et al., 210). Effective leaders must evaluate their abilities and those of their organization’s members before and during key decisions and tasks and must include the effects of those decisions on personnel and organizational values in the evaluation process (Hess et al., 211).


Effective leaders must navigate a difficult arena of fulfilling many, sometimes conflicting, obligations, and must retain personal and organizational morals in the process. Chosen leaders should be those with high moral values and should be continuously evaluated according to organizational standards.

While leaders can be considered the most important members of an organization, volunteers are critical to the success of any not-for-profit organization. Effective leaders must be able to motivate and self-motivate those volunteers. By allowing volunteers to complete tasks somewhat on their own terms, and by giving them important, complete, and diverse tasks, as well as positive feedback of those tasks, effective leaders can keep volunteers self-motivated for the long-term.

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With the ever-changing world environment, not-for-profit organizations must be able to culturally change as well. Effective leaders must balance the necessity of administrative control with the necessity of creativity, innovation, and adaptation. Ambiguous directives lead to frustration, distrust, and regression, and effective leaders must navigate the ship through the ocean of change, not merely set it adrift.

Effective not-for-profit leaders utilize several basic building blocks, including positive relationships with everyone associated with the organization, catering leadership styles according to the individual, the ability to foster appropriate organizational culture change while maintaining values and ethics, and a wide range of technical and social skills to survive the ever-evolving not-for-profit sector.

Effective not-for-profit leaders must be able to analyze their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the organization’s members, to properly distribute decision-making responsibilities. Effective leaders must examine not only the tangible effects of a decision, but also the emotional and social effects on those associated with the organization. The most effective leaders use their emotional intelligence to leverage their staff in collaborative leadership responsibilities.


I was drawn to the topic of effective leadership for non-profit organizations because I have been a board member of a local nonprofit organization for about three years. I joined the organization when it was barely a year old and have seen quite a bit of turnover in board membership, including a recent departure of a key founding member on less than great terms. Additionally, the organization tends to have trouble motivating and holding members accountable for volunteer tasks. I wanted to evaluate myself, as secretary, and the board as a whole, and learn how to improve our leadership style, organizational culture, and motivation techniques.

What I found through this research process was invaluable. Leaders must be able to motivate themselves and other members/volunteers, while maintaining morals consistent with the organization and its mission, keeping donors, implementing fundraising programs, and maintaining growth. It is quite a daunting task for an all-volunteer board, no matter how passionate the members are about the mission. My research shows that the key strategy for any non-profit leader centers on utilizing emotional intelligence skills to properly motivate members/volunteers with the most effective leadership style. Effective leaders must build the right team and understand every individual’s strengths and keys to self-motivation. I believe that after this research, I can begin to steer my organization in a better direction and continue our growth and success into the future.


  1. Emler, Nicholas. “Seven Moral Challenges of Leadership.” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2019, vol. 71, no. 1, pp. 32-46.
  2. Van Schie, Susan & Guntert, Stefan T. & Oostlander, Jeannette & Wehner, Theo. “How the Organizational Context Impacts Volunteers: A Differentiated Perspective on Self-Determined Motivation.” Voluntas, 2015, vol. 26, pp. 1570-1590.
  3. Schreiber, C & Milosevic, Ivana & Carsten, Melissa. “Exploring Leadership Culture Change within a Non-Profit Organization.” Academy of Management Proceedings, 2014, pp. 1-40.
  4. Osula, Bramwell & Ng, Eddie C. W. “Toward a Collaborative, Transformative Model of Non-Profit Leadership: Some Conceptual Building Blocks.” Administrative Sciences, 2014, 4, pp. 87-104.
  5. Hess, James D. & Bacigalupo, Arnold C. “Applying Emotional Intelligence Skills to Leadership and Decision Making in Non-Profit Organizations.” Administrative Sciences, 2013, 3, pp. 202-220.
  6. Allen, Beverlyn Lundy & Morton, Lois Wright. “Generating Self-Organizing Capacity: Leadership Practices and Training Needs in Non-Profits.” Journal of Extension, December 2006, vol. 44, no. 6, https://www.joe.org/joe/2006december/a6.php.
  7. Voracek, Jan & Tripes, Stanislaus & Pudil, Pavel & Somol, Petr. “Symbiosis of Management and Leadership in Non-Profit Sport Clubs.” Proceedings of the European Conference on Management, Leadership, 2012, pp. 433-441.


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