Leader skills

Key Skills for Non-Profit Leaders to navigate ever increasing challenges

Inspire, Enable, Embrace, Communicate and Collaborate

Leading an (I)NGO was never easy but today, we face an even greater number of complex global challenges: a devastating pandemic, growing inequality, human rights abuses, gender inequality, chronic long-term conflicts, and the urgent need to tackle climate change! Just to name a few.

To tackle such complex problems, we need strong and vibrant civil society organizations with strong leadership teams with a long-term sustainable vision and tangible action plan to deliver real and measurable impact. Therefore being a successful Executive Director (ED), depends on their ability to lead and inspire a collaborative and aligned Senior Management Team (SMT).

Organizations’ sustainability is a long-term game and requires focused vision and commitment. Boards and SMTs must have a shared understanding of the political, social, cultural, legal, and economic situation, (often called PESTLE Analysis) as they will impact the organization’s strategy. But slow-changing organizational culture and complexity are critical barriers to embedding sustainability across the organization and strategy. On top of this colleagues are exhausted, anxious, and still working mostly virtual. To overcome these obstacles, organizations need different leadership approach.

I believe, that this means showing resilience and leadership by the SMT as whole and the ED is a part of this, facilitating and enabling the team. The challenges we face now, no longer touch upon just one function or program at a time. Solving these problems requires seeing and working horizontally across the organization. It means that the SMT need to work alongside each other, collaboratively and as a united group of trusted colleagues. A group that has a clear and common understanding of organizational purpose and objectives and operates together to achieve them. They must use soft skills, such as authenticity, humility and self-awareness, to inspire change and galvanize collective action


To do this effectively, in my view, and based on my personal experience, one needs to prioritize the following:

  1. Embrace reality and deal with it. Be flexible and open to shift and adjust to the continuous changing circumstances. Therefore, embrace change.
  2. Set out long-term organizational goals with the aim to become and stay sustainable to be able to deliver on the organizations mission. These are actively managed and tracked against short-term divisional and functional goals. Each individual leaders’ objectives and those of their teams tie into the broader purpose, and those objectives are visible and understood by all.
  3. Keep actively working on strong and trusted relationships. Be both heroic and vulnerable, take and ask for feedback. Look at external data and take this to heart and make continuous improvements to self and the organization.
  4. It is about sharing and connecting. Know when to step back and share power and credit, promote the success of others.
  5. Communicate, communicate, and communicate transparently to all stakeholders, board members, employees, managers, partners, members, volunteers.

By effectively managing and addressing the persistent and long-term issues along with employees’ more present and immediate concerns about economic and job security, flexibility, and greater equity, leaders have a significant opportunity to increase trust, engagement, loyalty and productivity. Employees want to work for companies with a clear purpose – they look for leaders who not only take a stand, but match what they say they will do with meaningful, measurable and consistent actions.

Soft skills are more in demand than ever before. Leaders need the mental strength, empathy and courage to maintain confidence in an ever-more complex operating environment – and thus spur positive action on sustainability.

Ultimately, a changing world requires organizations to change along with it. That change should be led from the top. EDs, board chairs and directors must now take concerted action on working collaboratively as ONE and have a shared long-term sustainable strategy for the organization that is clearly communicated, understood, and valued by all, to create valuable impact in line with their mission


Julie Verhaar