Four Skills Nonprofit Leaders Must Embrace to be Successful in 2020

Emily H. Benham | CEO, NLC Tips

After more than 40 years as a nonprofit leader, turning the page to a new calendar year is always a sobering moment for me because everything resets to zero — success metrics, revenue performance and participation impact. The pace of change in our society and nonprofit sector is dizzying. The one thing I know for sure is that our plans must continually evolve to achieve our goals. While change is constant, it’s our response that matters.

In the spirit of operating in an ever-changing landscape, I believe there are four essential skills nonprofit leaders must embrace to be successful in 2020.

Four Skills Nonprofit Leaders Must Embrace to be Successful in 2020

1. Master the pivot.

Author and NLC facilitator Steve Zimmerman recently wrote that innovation happens through continuous learning. He said that creating an innovative strategy can’t be a one-time or episodic practice, but rather it must be a continual process of trying, observing, refining and trying again.

Just as a strategic plan can’t sit on a shelf, successful nonprofit leaders must think strategically every day, using program assessments to drive real-time decision making and adapting to resource changes nimbly. Having an adaptive mindset and the ability to think strategically on your feet is a non-negotiable in 2020.

2. Find your voice.

The Nonprofit Leadership Center partnered with the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg in 2018 to assess the capacity of 31 nonprofit organizations in Pinellas County. Using the Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT), certified facilitators worked with teams of leadership staff and board members to pinpoint specific areas to strengthen to ensure organizational growth. While there were many “aha” moments from the collective findings, one of the most striking was the need for nonprofit leaders to find their voice to tell their story. Not only was this the case for fundraising effectiveness, but also for community outreach and board leadership.

In 2020, successful nonprofit leaders will recognize the value of having a clear and compelling brand story and will invest in a communications plan to help potential donors, community leaders and their peers understand what their organization does and, most importantly, why it matters. What tools (human and financial) do you already have in your toolbox or need to acquire to make that a reality? Even with a limited budget, nonprofit leaders can utilize staff and board resources as well as external consultants who are willing to contribute to their mission to inspire audiences to care and act.

READ NEXT: How to create breakthrough communications on a budget

3. Be relentlessly curious.

Learning is a lifelong endeavor. The status quo is what happens when we stop seeking new and better ways to accomplish our work. No matter how seasoned or successful one may be, the best leaders are hungry to learn more — to read about industry best practices, to stay abreast of what peers and partners are doing, to listen to and ask questions of others and to go out of their comfort zone to hone new skills. Past performance won’t dictate future success in our ever-changing world and sector. The best leaders in 2020 will be those who are relentlessly curious, seeking information, education and innovation to adapt, grow and thrive.

Here are a few ways NLC can help nonprofit leaders stay relentlessly curious this year:

  • Obtain a new professional certification: Whether you want to brush up on your skills or learn completely new ones, a professional certification is a great way to continue your education and enhance your professional reputation. NLC offers a graduate certificate in nonprofit management with the University of Tampa as well as numerous certificates in areas like grant writing, board governance, volunteer management and financial management.
  • Join a leadership peer group: The best learning happens when we connect with and learn from others. Sharing struggles and triumphs as well as problem-solving with peers is often where the most powerful learnings — and new opportunities — are born. Consider joining a leadership peer group, like one of NLC’s CEO Circles or another local leadership networking community. Email me to learn more.
  • Take a class: Strengthening our skills and our organizations is a never-ending process. We have an opportunity to grow and hone our skills in every area. Commit to take several nonprofit training classes throughout the year and empower your staff/team to do the same. Consider strengthening your skills in an area that feels less natural or comfortable to you — perhaps financial management, dealing with conflict, avoiding bias in the workplace, enhancing your social media presence or countless other areas.

READ NEXT: Why face-to-face learning is better than online learning

4. Embrace the pause.

What does productivity look like to you? Is it an empty inbox, a grant application submitted, a client’s issue resolved? Yes, of course. But being productive also means giving yourself time to reflect. Too often, I allow reflection to drop to the bottom of my list. A nicety. Something that’s optional. I recently changed my thinking on that topic. It’s not an either/or — it’s a both/and.

READ NEXT: 3 Ways to Increase Your Productivity at Work Without Working More

Team NLC recently held our staff retreat at Quantum Leap Farm as part of their Equine Assisted Self Exploration (EASE) program. Our staff retreats have historically consisted of packed agendas and discussions around strategic goals and growing resources. This past year, however, we ditched the overwhelming list of conversation topics to explore the expression of our individual leadership styles and to learn more about each other. Working as a team with our equine partners and master trainer Ellen Nastir, we learned how to better work together to accomplish our big audacious goals. We learned to celebrate who we are and what we bring to the team.

Team NLC at Quantum Leap Farm in December 2019

In this moment, I learned to embrace the power of the pause and to make it a priority in everyday life. A pause will look different for each of us. It could be a five-minute walk outside your office during the day. It might be eating lunch together with other team members and not talking about work issues. It may be a 10-minute meditation first thing in the morning. This year, successful nonprofit leaders will make personal reflection and intentional pausing a must-do rather than a might-do. I’m certain you’ll notice a difference.


Emily H. Benham has nearly four decades of experience in the nonprofit field. Before taking on the role of CEO of the Nonprofit Leadership Center in 2014, Emily was the interim president for Bayfront HERO (Health, Education and Research Organization), a health legacy foundation formed in 2013 with the net proceeds of the sale of Bayfront Medical Center. She also served as a member of Bayfront Medical Center’s senior leadership team, directing its philanthropic arm for more than 20 years.

Prior to her work in health care philanthropy, Emily led fund development efforts at the Florida Orchestra, American Stage and the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami.

Emily is a native of Reading, Pennsylvania, and received her bachelor’s degree in music from Amherst College in Massachusetts. She’s an avid equestrian and competes regionally in dressage with her equine partner, Current Affair.


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