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Nonprofit Management: Top Traits of the Best Leaders

Successful leadership of a nonprofit is often driven by a few core traits—and a public administration degree.

United Way. The Salvation Army. Girl Scouts. Boy Scouts. Susan G. Koman. Nonprofits are part of the fabric of American life. There are more than 260,000 nonprofit organizations in operation in the U.S. and they employ more than 11.4 million people.* While all those people and organizations are focused on a vast array of missions and goals, they share one very important feature—they all need strong, transformative leadership.

What makes a strong nonprofit leader? Many of the best leaders hold a graduate-level administration degree such as a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management. But a master’s degree is just part of the equation. To truly succeed in nonprofit management, it’s helpful if you possess a few key traits. These include:

Nonprofit Management: Top Traits of the Best Leaders

  1. Passion

    Nonprofits have public service missions that can include helping vulnerable populations, promoting animal welfare, and safeguarding our environment and historic places, to name a few. To successfully lead a nonprofit, you have to believe in your mission. That passion can sustain you as you do the hard work of planning, organizing, and fundraising. That passion can help inspire those working with you, and motivate others to contribute to your organization.

  2. Optimism

    Passion without optimism is wasted energy. To keep moving your nonprofit organization forward, you have to believe in the mission and believe your organization can make a real difference. Yes, you will experience failure. But possessing the optimism necessary to treat failure as a learning opportunity rather than a defeat can help you overcome obstacles and build something great.

  3. Curiosity

    Your nonprofit competes with other nonprofits for public attention and donor dollars. You must stay relevant, which means you must stay interested in new ways to reach out and/or be seen. The curious leader investigates new programs and services to offer clients, new technologies to communicate to a network of stakeholders, and innovative fundraising techniques being used by other nonprofits, and continually asks, “How can we better serve our clients and community?”

  4. Delegation Skills

    Nonprofit leaders are often moving in two directions at once. They are reaching out to donors and they are pursuing their mission to help a specific cause. You can’t stay 100% focused on 100% of your organization’s tasks 100% of the time. You have to know how to delegate, which means understanding who in your organization is best for what job, and then following a manageable system of oversight.

  5. People Skills

    The best leaders in every public service organization tend to be good with people. This doesn’t mean they’re charismatic (although many are). It means they pay attention to what people want; listen to their concerns, hopes, and ideas; and respond to them in meaningful ways. Having good people skills can help you motivate donors, partner with other organizations, and inspire your staff and volunteers.

  6. Critical Thinking Skills

    All the passion, optimism, and people skills in the world can take you only so far. A lot of success is about making smart, strategic decisions. If you want to succeed in nonprofit management, you must be able to identify and evaluate relevant sources of information as well as to use a variety of data and information to solve problems and identify consequences.

  7. Modesty

    In business, there’s sometimes room for big egos, but in the nonprofit field, an oversized ego can pull the focus away from your organization’s mission. If you try to seize the limelight, you could end up damaging your ability to get people to pay attention to the cause you’re supporting.

  8. Ambition

    Being modest does not mean being inert. You still want to be ambitious. You just want to focus that ambition on making a difference in the lives of others, through your nonprofit, in the most effective way possible. You’re always thinking about how to take your organization to the next level—expanding your helping hand.

  9. Commitment to Knowledge

    There’s a reason so many of the best nonprofit leaders hold an advanced degree. They know that knowledge is essential to success. That’s why, if you want to become a great nonprofit leader, you should consider earning a master’s degree, particularly an MS in Nonprofit Management and Leadership.

Even if you’re already working full time at a nonprofit—or at any other organization—you can still find time to earn your MS in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. By enrolling in an online university for your MS degree, you can take advantage of all the conveniences of online learning, such as completing your coursework from home and being able to schedule your studies in a manner that enables you to keep working full time. An online master’s degree program makes advancing your knowledge—and career—more possible than ever before.

Nonprofits need great leaders. If you feel you have the right traits, you can add a solid foundation of knowledge through an online MS in Nonprofit Management and Leadership.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Nonprofit Management and Leadership degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Nonprofits in America: New Research Data on Employment, Wages, and Establishments, Monthly Labor Review, on the internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,