Not for Profit Leadership Observations

The ‘In the Spotlight’ series has seen me interviewing Chief Executives of a range of charities over the past two years, inviting sector leaders to share their motivations, career trajectories and views of leadership in the not for profit sector. One of the joys of working with charities is the sheer variety and complexity of the sector which make our job so interesting and rewarding. 

I have heard from a wide range of leaders, from first time CEOs to individuals who have led multiple organisations; from those who have applied their leadership skills to a number of sectors and those who consider themselves to be not for profit sector leaders through and through. I have met with leaders of very large national charities to those at the helm of much smaller organisations and those leading service delivery charities and those with an influencing and campaigning agenda. Despite this variety, some common themes have emerged from the interviews undertaken so far.

There is no set route to the top

I have been struck by the different paths people have taken before becoming a Chief Executive. Some people have worked to a career plan and aspired to be a Chief Executive and others were subject matter experts who responded to opportunities that presented themselves in organisations they felt passionately about. However, regardless of whether being a Chief Executive had been a long-held aim or not, career development for most has been a lifelong series of ‘mini decisions’ rather than a one-off choice, coupled with a willingness to make the most of opportunities that present themselves and to learn from every new challenge.

Leadership in the not for profit sector is not an easy option

It is fair to say that charity sector Chief Executives are working under intense scrutiny, while responding to intense political, societal and economic challenges. Resilience is key. The commissioning landscape has become increasingly difficult as a result of austerity, as has fundraising, while need continues to rise. Political uncertainty has made influencing government increasingly difficult. All charities, regardless of their size, are affected by these issues to some degree but smaller charities with fewer resources have a particular challenge of ensuring that leaders have the time and headspace they need to step away and focus on the big picture rather than  just reactively responding to day-to-day firefighting.

The Relationship with the Chair is key

A successful partnership between Chief Executive and Chair was consistently cited as an important factor for success. This is something that we hear consistently and ensuring that the opportunity to test the chemistry between Chair and CEO outside of the formal panel interview is something we consider a vital part of any Chief Executive or Chair recruitment process. We are about to embark on a piece of research into this significant relationship, so watch this space for further details.

‘Voice’ is vital

A regular theme in the interviews was a commitment to placing the voice of service users and beneficiaries at the centre of everything. This is reflected in our experience of working with our clients to design final panels which test candidates’ abilities to interact with stakeholders and to test experience of co-designing services with candidates at interview. We are seeing an increase in the number of organisations with trustees with lived experience on charity Boards yet most would agree that more can be done.

Social heart and commercial head

A commitment to the cause should never be underestimated and for many it has been a significant factor in career decisions. However, being able to strike the right balance between commercial and mission demands, ensuring alignment with the organisational purpose, customer needs, commercial impact and value is important.


The importance of diversity is a consistent theme throughout the interviews undertaken as well as in our day-to-day work to find executive and non-executive leaders for our clients. There is a recognition that leadership teams should reflect the communities they serve more closely and a willingness to work in partnership to make this happen. Careful nurturing of a pipeline of emerging talent will be critical to success here.

At GatenbySanderson we are motivated on a daily basis by our organisational purpose to find and develop leaders that shape a better society. Our commitment to ensuring successful leadership in a sector that changes lives is why we are here and why we are proud to support the Not for Profit sector. If you’d like to discuss the support we can provide with your individual and organisational leadership challenges, then please contact me at

Joanna Thornton, Partner, Not for Profit.

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