Lucky 13: What Should We Expect from a Nonprofit CEO?

Lucky 13: What Should We Expect from a Nonprofit CEO?

September 5, 2017

I am often asked by board members and staff as well as nonprofit chief executives themselves, what should we expect from a CEO? With the big turnover of nonprofit CEOs in the next few years, the multiplying expectations in the search for new CEOs, and the increasing use of performance appraisal methods for CEOs by boards of directors, this question has never been more important.

So, what should we expect from a nonprofit CEO? I would like to summarize here the thirteen roles of effective nonprofit chief executives.

  1. Visionary. If nothing else, CEOs must influence others to achieve shared goals. CEOs are expected to lead consensus regarding purpose, develop and implement a strategic plan for the future of the organization, devise innovative organizational strategies, and invent new structures and processes to achieve strategic goals.

  1. Issue Guru. Most staff in nonprofit organizations are specialists, either in the programs provided by nonprofits – human services, for example – or support areas, like fund raising and financial management. CEOs need to go beyond their career tracks and become knowledgeable about the broad range of issues about which they are expected to make decisions.

  1. Board Enabler. Orchestrating governance and the board of directors is an important CEO responsibility, including educating, engaging and supporting board members and committees as well as empowering the board to act.

  1. Fundraiser. The single most fundamental issue confronting most nonprofit organizations is the perennial mismatch between its compelling mission and sufficient funding in order to accomplish that mission. Inevitably a nonprofit CEO is the organization's chief fundraiser (although supported by a director of development and development staff).

  1. Communicator. Any CEO must communicate and work with the nonprofit organization’s many stakeholders, inside and outside the organization, through formal and informal networks. Strategic alliances and partnerships are born here.

  1. Spokesperson. Related to communicator, CEOs must represent their organizations to the world and both protect and elevate the organization’s image, including public, community and media relations, marketing, and advocacy.

  1. Environmental Detective. Given the rapidly shifting landscape for nonprofit organizations, CEOs need to monitor changes in the organization’s environment, interpret these changes to the organization, quickly respond to new developments, and exploit organizational opportunities.

  1. Team Builder. Here the CEO has to build an effective, diverse and empowered top management team, with an emphasis on hiring individuals committed to the organization’s mission, individuals who are open to feedback and also prepared to provide feedback, including to the CEO.

  1. Organizational Tone Setter. CEOs must create a supportive working environment, where staff and volunteers are respected, listened to, and feel secure in taking appropriate risks. An emphasis on ethical behavior is important here. There should be strong relationships between a CEO and key staff.

  1. Resource Manager. Managing all resources efficiently and effectively—financial resources, human resources, data, technology, and facilities--requires CEO oversight.

  1. Performance Monitor.  Making sure that an organization's performance is assessed and improved involves the CEO as well. Evaluating the quality of services an organization delivers is central.

  1. Flexible Change Agent. Change is inherent in the practice of leadership, but CEOs must also be prepared to accept compromise and incremental change rather than always holding out for the “perfect” solutions to problems. Adaptation and change often require experimentation and can take time.

  1. Self Manager. Managing oneself, having an agenda and focusing attention on it, allowing oneself to be guided by others in the organization, continuing to learn, setting work/life boundaries in a technology-enabled era, knowing one's strengths and weaknesses and reflecting regularly on one’s leadership -- all are important if the CEO is to be effective.

This short essay is titled “Lucky 13.” Some in our culture think that 13 means ill-fated. But, in many countries, 13 is considered a lucky number. In Italy, for example, the phrase fare tredici ("to do 13") means hit the jackpot. If your nonprofit organization is fortunate enough to have a CEO who fulfills all 13 roles, you have indeed hit the jackpot.


Frederick S. Lane, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus and Academic Director, The Great Leaders Program, Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York.

Frederick S. Lane