Leadership Insights for the Not for Profit Sector

Our research has found that the most significant people issue for our Not for Profit and Public Sector clients is the development of their senior leaders, which has been further highlighted through the impact of the pandemic on working practices and expectations.

Gartner research confirms this, with ‘current and future leadership bench strength’ as a top 5 people priority in 2021, with 44% of HR representatives reporting that they are struggling to develop their senior leaders.        

The challenges leaders face in the Not for Profit sector          

Our conversations with leaders in your sector have shone a spotlight on many challenges. There are, however, four that consistently arise in our interactions with Chief Executives and Board members:       

  • Financial Pressure     
  • Workload Pressure     
  • A Climate of Scrutiny     
  • Diversity and Inclusion        

For each challenge we reference the critical leadership behaviours and then use benchmarking data from GatenbySanderson leadership profiling to provide insights into the capacity of leaders in your sector to deliver on these.        

Defining behavioural excellence       

In this article we will reference the GatenbySanderson leadership model, Altitude, this describes behavioural excellence for leaders working across the Public and Not for Profit Sectors. The model includes 12 behaviours falling into three clusters; Focus on Self, Focus on People and Focus on Outcomes.       

We have mapped assessment data on over 3,500 leaders to these behaviours allowing us to benchmark and compare leader capability in different sectors to the broader Public Sector (we have data for over 300 leaders from the Not for Profit sector). We calculate this variance to generate a Net Leadership Capability score that can then be reported as a ‘strength’ or a ‘risk’.   

While all 12 of these behaviours are key to leadership success, some of these are of particular relevance to the immediate challenges identified for charities, and insight for these is referenced below.      

The leadership behaviours that matter in your context     

Financial Pressure:  The Covid-19 crisis has caused further, significant financial challenges for charities both large and small.  Indeed, the Charity Commission’s CEO has recently questioned (April, 2021) the financial resilience of charities a year on from the first lockdown.     

‘Outcomes’ behaviours are key to delivering on this challenge with ‘Social Heart, Commercial Head’ and ‘Drive Strategic Clarity’ of particular relevance. Both support the requirement of Not-for-Profit leaders to consider what is core to their strategy and what is now commercially possible in the circumstances, this requires placing a laser focus on the charity’s original purpose.       

The Net Leadership Capability score shows that leaders in the Not-for-Profit sector, when compared to leaders in the broader Public Sector, have greater potential to deliver on these behaviours with significant, positive differences shown across all four ‘Outcome’ behaviours. This suggests a real strength and opportunity for leaders in the sector to determine where the focus of services needs to be and to consider the commercial implications of their decisions.       

Workload Pressure: Through discussions with charity CEOs there is a common concern for staff welfare and the need to consider the support needed for staff who remain highly committed to the cause whilst working under the current pandemic conditions with the risk of burnout.      

‘Focus on People’ behaviours are particularly key here and bringing teams together with the goals on the organisation, rather than their specific function, front of mind will help ensure that resource is aligned to strategic priorities.  This requires both the integration of more agile working practices as well as a mindset shift from leaders and employees. The Behaviour of most relevance here is ‘Build Team Unity’, indeed the Net Leadership Capability insight suggests that leaders in the Not-for-Profit sector, when compared to the broader Public Sector, have a significantly higher potential to deliver on this, and this strength should be leveraged with immediate effect.          

A Climate of Scrutiny:  Although recent research by the Charity Commission shows that levels of public trust in charities are up on recent years, they are still below pre-2014 levels. The sector has been beset by a number of widely reported allegations of financial mismanagement, bullying, cultural issues and safeguarding failings. The high-profile headlines in recent years have therefore contributed to a climate of intense scrutiny which means that leaders’ behaviours are increasingly under the spotlight.      

Behaviours of most relevance here are ‘Engender Trust’ and ‘Courage and Tenacity’. The Net Leadership Capability score shows that leaders in the Not-for-Profit sector, when compared to the broader Public Sector, have less potential to deliver on these behaviours with near significant, negative differences shown for these two core behaviours. This should be noted as a risk for leaders in the sector as they grapple with rebuilding trust and maintaining their own resilience through a difficult period and challenging times ahead. 

Diversity and Inclusion: Our conversations with Boards and leadership teams frequently reference the need for not for profit organisations and their leadership teams to be more representative of the communities they serve.     

The Behaviour of focus here is ‘Futureproof Talent’, here the Net Leadership Capability score shows that leaders in the Not for Profit sector, when compared to the broader Public Sector, have greater potential to deliver on this behaviour with a significant, positive difference in their score. Whilst this suggests a potential strength for leaders in the sector, as they look to address diversity and inclusion in their organisations, we also recommend caution with the need to consider diversity in its broadest sense, including leveraging the lived experience of individuals and that beneficiaries of services have a voice when shaping strategy and determining priorities.

Working in partnership with you     

Our Leadership & Talent Consultancy is a team of talent, leadership and organisational development specialists dedicated to helping our clients tackle the leadership challenges that matter to them and ultimately deliver on our mission to ‘find and develop leaders to shape a better society’.      

Our solutions include succession management, executive coaching, top team development, leadership development programmes, organisational development and board evaluation.  Some of our recent work in the Not-for-Profit Sector includes:       

– Personal Resilience Sessions for a major charity (January-February 2021) that started with the top team and cascaded down to the broader leadership population and all employees (aligned to the second and third challenges above).     

– Top Team Development and Coaching work for a leading charity that includes group sessions and on-going 121 individual coaching.

– Organisational Development work for a charity to explore the current and desired culture for the organisation using a cultural enquiry methodology, in addition to shaping the new values.

 – Outplacement Support for Reach to Teach (June-November, 2020). Pria Rai, Executive Director of Organisational Effextiveness and Change commented: ‘The team developed a thorough programme of personal branding, interview training and psychometrics which offered some very useful insights and techniques, the 1:1 approach (that included coaching) for each participant was thoughtful and considered. After the formal programme ended, there was mindful follow through to help individuals in their career journeys. I know our team members were very appreciative of that support. I would absolutely recommend the GS team again’.      

We have extensive experience supporting organisations and individuals understand their leadership capability and developing their top teams to be future ready. If you’d like to discuss how we can support your organisation with your leadership challenges, please contact Mark Powell at 

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