Non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders are uniquely positioned to tackle society’s most pressing issues across various domains. Despite operating in a resource-constrained environment, these executives are motivated by their purpose, ultimately leading to real-world impact. And while measuring success in this position may not be as straightforward as it is when compared to the corporate realm, these leaders have become significantly sophisticated in how they operate.
We’ve worked with hundreds of NGO organizations globally to discover, develop and transform leaders. And our overarching observation has been that, in a landscape teeming with challenges and opportunities, leaders have also evolved their own leadership capabilities.
Building from our work, as well as from interviews with leaders from three distinct NGOs globally, we identify five leadership traits that are key to thrive in the sector today in order to make a meaningful difference in the causes these organizations champion. While the nuances of our insights could vary based on the size of the NGO, the geography in which it operates and the problem it is trying to solve for, we believe these pointers can be generally applied to most setups.
1. Think Strategy, Do Strategy, and Embrace Optimism
NGO leaders must excel in planning for their organizations considering both short-term and long-term perspectives. This involves scenario building to anticipate opportunities and risks while proactively developing mitigation strategies. Particularly for smaller NGOs, leaders must broaden their horizons beyond the local environment and account for the trickle-down effects of global changes. Financial sustainability planning, streamlining funding sources, and integrating social entrepreneurship opportunities are critical aspects.
While this strategic vision is a foundational skill, there’s another critical trait these leaders must possess, and it’s highly driven by purpose. "To run an organization like this, you need optimism," emphasized Shoshana Stewart, President of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation. The NGO sector often faces financial uncertainties and inherent conflicts, making a positive outlook and perseverance through challenges essential for leaders in the NGO realm.
Leaders must also navigate volatile situations with fairness and compassion, striking a balance between making tough decisions and ensuring equitable outcomes. "Humanity, care, and not following the rules are needed sometimes," Stewart added.
Part of being strategic entails having interdisciplinary thinking as leaders can benefit from embracing knowledge and insights from various sectors. Myrna Atalla, CEO of Alfanar, a venture philanthropy organization, underscores the significance of an interdisciplinary approach, stating, "We already operate at an intersection, supporting social enterprises. It's important for us to understand the priorities and strategies of other relevant sectors." This interdisciplinary lens is necessary to effectively collaborate with adjacent sectors and organizations.
Humanity, care, and not following the rules are needed sometimes.Shoshana Stewart, President of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation
2. Be Agile and Drive Change
Agility and adaptability are essential qualities for NGO leaders, given the volatile nature of the problems they strive to solve. “Donors want speed, high energy leaders want speed, but some of our staff don’t. And it’s become harder with Covid-19.”
Whether dealing with disruptive technologies or global pandemics, leaders in the NGO world must quickly adapt to change and drive it within their organizations. This ensures diversified funding streams and efficient utilization of resources, leading to impactful outcomes. Flexibility is also crucial, as Atalla highlights, "Covid made clear that rigid adherence to a fixed strategy does not work. Leaders need to have a strategy and north star, but they also need to embrace flexibility."
3. Balancing Board and Executive Coordination
Effective coordination between executive leadership and the board’s needed oversight is a vital skill for executive leaders in NGOs. Striking the right balance ensures that the organization’s plans progress effectively, emergencies are responded to quickly, and decision-making occurs efficiently. However, keeping the board informed can be challenging given how much happens in between quarterly board meetings. “I would encourage leaders to explore different modes of communication with the board, some for quick updates that ensure engagement, and some for longer-form strategic discussion and consultation. Board members are a remarkable resource and want to help; making that possible in an efficient way is a critical part of NGO leadership,” says Atalla.
In terms of board and executive coordination, the level of involvement differs significantly from that of a corporate organization. This is partly because in many NGOs, the CEO and other executives are not on the board; and partly because of the complex structures of some larger NGOs – for example as global federations. “Board and executive co-ordination are required far more than in a corporate organization,” Manisha Wijesinghe, Executive Director and Jayne Booth, Chair of HELP for Domestic Workers explain, adding: “The level of involvement is either too little or too much. It is very important to find that balance.”
Board and executive co-ordination are required far more than in a corporate organization. The level of involvement is either too little or too much. It is very important to find that balance.Manisha Wijesinghe, Executive Director, and Jayne Booth, Chair of HELP for Domestic Workers
4. Be Technically Sound
NGOs must meet their fundraising goals in order to operate. While the pressure to deliver on financial goals is immense, there’s a lot of interdependencies among teams. To lead effectively , NGO leaders must balance strategic thinking with hands-on execution. “In our senior team hiring, we need to balance the strategic and relationship skills, such as forging local partnerships – which our country directors are often great at – with the more technical skills such as writing funding proposals and doing detailed costings. Country leadership teams need to be able to do both,” Stewart noted.
Atalla also shares how identifying the right leaders for the organization can both strengthen operations and free up valuable capacity for her: “Recently, we hired a great operations director, which has helped hugely – enabling me to confidently focus on other parts of our work, namely fundraising and supporting the launch of an affiliated impact fund. With a strong team, for example, our strategy review was a pleasure to do! Furthermore, we were able to hold our first Gala in three years and raise critical support to drive positive change.”
5. Partnership Building
Partnerships have become indispensable for scaling and sustaining NGOs. Recognizing the need for partnerships at all levels (private, public, civic, and other agencies), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 17) underscore their importance. With mandates like Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) matters and social responsibility gaining traction, more stakeholders, including from the corporate sphere, are willing to collaborate.
Building and nurturing strategic partnerships is a challenging yet essential competency for NGO leaders. As Atalla asserts: "At Alfanar, we call our donors our partners. This is important to us because we want to move past the one-way transaction mentality of implementing projects for a donor. This is typically difficult to achieve with short-term donors. However, I have found that with some of our long-term scale partners, it has organically grown such that there is a healthy mix of clarity on roles and responsibility as well as confidence in shared purpose that facilitates the way forward.” Stewart also talks about how difficult it is to partner with other organizations because, in her words, “Everybody is competing for the same funding.”
"At Alfanar, we call our donors our partners. This is important to us because we want to move past the one-way transaction mentality of implementing projects for a donor. This is typically difficult to achieve with short-term donors.Myrna Atalla, CEO of Alfanar
Equipping NGO Leaders for Today’s and Tomorrow’s Challenges
In addition to these characteristics, the charisma and representativeness of leaders hold significant influence over employee motivation and trust in their ability to drive the organization's mission. While not absolute dealbreakers, these qualities play a pivotal role in sustaining organizational morale and maintaining faith in the leader's capabilities.
Leading for impact isn’t easy. It requires a special set of skills to overcome unique challenges leaders face to advance their purpose. By understanding these leadership traits, leaders can better equip themselves to tackle their current and future challenges—regardless of their geographical location or mission they are committed to.
Leaders may use these traits as pointers to identify areas in which to develop or focus on, depending on the situation at hand. Additionally, this awareness can also guide NGO leaders in making informed decisions when hiring new team members. Ultimately, the success of leaders translates into success for the critical causes they are working towards.