NCI Blog

Leadership in the Not-for-Profit Sector: A Guest Post from Quality Matters

Posted by Emma Henderson on 29 November 2016


Is being a senior manager or leader in the non-profit sector a good job? If you ask 10 not-for-profit leaders whether theirs is a great job, what are they likely to say?

Let's make it more challenging and ask them on a really tough day. Are they likely to say, ‘Yes, we are privileged to work in a field full of passionate people who really care about improving the world” or “No, it’s too hard and there are too many needs we can’t meet, too much regulation and not enough resources”?

Before we answer this, let’s look at what a bad day might involve. Firstly, not-for-profit leaders are being asked to achieve more with less, and there is a good chance that a bad day starts with trying to stretch scarce resources to meet the needs of the people who are passionate about helping.

Secondly, funders are increasingly asking for data on outcomes that show that your not-for-profit is effective. Leaders will have to work out how to prove their staff are doing a good job. Now this is going to require new technology – another challenge on your to-do list. After a cup of tea at 11.00 AM, like any manager of any organisation, you need to work through staff challenges and maybe do some work on a new partnership project. The afternoon is going to involve pitching an exciting new project to some senior state officials and there is always the challenge of getting them to understand the problems from your clients’ point of view and the solution. Is this a bad day?

While this seems very familiar to leaders in the not-for-profit sector, and could be considered more than a little stressful, these are some challenges facing leaders. If you get any leader in a quiet space and ask them if it’s worth it, they will say YES. We know this because we did, we (very unscientifically) asked 10 senior managers about challenges in their organisations. The answer was a resounding yes (after some complaining about the challenges they face). Everyone said something along the lines of: it's a privilege to use my talents to make the world a slightly better, more equal, more inclusive, more compassionate place and, you know what, there is nothing I would rather do.

We agree! But we also think that it can be easier if all managers and leaders have the time and support to develop the skills they need in today’s increasingly demanding environment.


That's why National College of Ireland, The Wheel and we at Quality Matters have developed an educational programme that teaches current and emerging leaders how to tackle problems that face them in the workplace. Challenges can range from demonstrating outcomes, creating real and lasting change, preparing for commissioning, understanding and using implementation science to delivering a knockout presentation. Most importantly, and we know this from our many past students, this programme helps people get back in touch with what makes them love their job.

So that answers whether it's a good job: the next question is always, what makes a good leader? You guessed it – we have been thinking about this also. The good news is that many of the key theorists in this field (like Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, John Kotter, Henry Mintzberg and Stephen Covey) maintain that anyone can learn to be an effective leader, and we can definitely avoid being a toxic one.

Leadership is not just for the chosen, well educated or charismatically inclined. Rather it is a set of behaviours that everyone can learn. The Leadership Challenge model (Kouzes and Posner) provides 30 key behaviours that if practiced often will make anyone a good leader. What is even better about this model is that you can get a 360-degree assessment (your colleagues, boss and any one who reports to you can complete a form) to show you what behaviours you practice often, and how you can improve. On Leaders for Change we work on these personal attributes and demystify the notion of leadership.

With effort anyone can be a good leader. The purpose of this course, and the Masters programme at National College of Ireland, is to show you how to be not just a good leader but an excellent one – the kind your team will think back on in years to come and say, ‘that really was my best job ever’.

Caroline Gardner is the CEO of a social research organisation,, that works with other charities and state services in order to improve social services for disadvantaged groups across Ireland. Caroline has over 15 years experience in leadership roles with the not-for-profit sector and is currently a tutor on the Not-for-Profit educational Pathway in NCI, run in conjunction with Quality Matters and the Wheel.

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