what nonprofit leaders should know

What should you know to be a great nonprofit leader in this time? We regularly hear from people who either want to break into the nonprofit sector or who are looking to advance in nonprofit leadership. People also touch base who have just started their nonprofit and are wondering… “now what?”

Thinking about things I knowWe’re asked: What should I learn? What do I need to know? Who do you recommend I read?

Those conversations prompted me to start a list that has grown quickly. The list is for me to help be able to point people to resources and help me ask better questions about a person’s knowledge base. My little list has changed so much that it doesn’t work the way I intended but it continues to intrigue me. So I’m turning it over to you.

I’d like your input, feedback and collaboration on my list.

The only limitation is that the items need to apply to leading nonprofits of any size or any mission. These are more general than not, but I’m open. As you’ll see, it isn’t a very well behaved list. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff here. And my list isn’t in any particular order. In fact, I typed these as they have been coming to mind. Also, no complete sentences necessary.

Here’s part of my list.

A nonprofit leader should know:

The elevator speech (both organizationally and personally)

The difference between a Facebook Fan Page and a personal Facebook Profile Page

Twitter basics

Moves management and how it’s applied in your organization

How your organization deals with lapsed donors

Which direct mail topic had the best ROI last year and which one had the worst

Seth Godin

How 990s changed in 2008

The names of your top 10 donors…and something about them personally

Your organization’s donor acquisition strategy

What is a World Wide Rave?

About Roy Williams and his Monday Morning Memo

Who does the actual backend of your website’s donation processing (and what a receipt from your website really looks like)?

Chris Brogan

How long it typically takes your organization to acknowledge and receipt a gift

A Peter Drucker quote by heart

Made to Stick

How Creative Commons works

Robert’s Rules of Order and how your board functions

What database you use to store your donor data and why that product was chosen.

Beth Kanter

Balance Sheet and Income Statement basics

Copywriting fundamentals

SEO principles

How to calculate ROI and response rates

Blue Ocean Strategy

That’s my start. I have about this many other items that I didn’t list because I wanted to give you a chance to contribute.

What’s missing? What do you think shouldn’t be on the list? Jump in and tell me who and what is missing. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(unedited photo credit: Brian Hillegas)

Picture of Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

8 thoughts on “what nonprofit leaders should know”

  1. #1 on the list: The difference the organization intends to make in the community, and their plan for making that difference.

    Then last on the list: The difference the organization intends to make in the community, and their plan for making that difference.

    All the rest falls in between.

  2. How to assure alignment and sustainability of “mission case” and “business case”

    Penelope Burk: Donor-Centered Fundraising

    How to assess the risk of insolvency

    Having twelve people who care about a cause is not the same as having twelve people who are able to advance that cause, solve a problem, manage an organization, and effectively deliver on its mission.

    Not to confuse accounting with finance — both are distinct disciplines, with different foci, even if they appear at first glance to be the same thing.


    AFP and the Code of Ethics for fundraising/fundraisers

    Either you know how to do accounting, or accounting gets done to you! (Nonprofit financial accounting requires serious study – the outstanding nonprofit leader will take the time to understand it)

    Cash flow forecasting and management

    Stanford Social Innovation Review

    Blue Avocado

    Board Source

    Nonprofit Quarterly

    If you don’t need to take credit, your work can go much further.

  3. @Peter-great additions, I knew you’d have some killer content. I love the distinction you draw between accounting and finance. I learned some hard lessons when I ran an NPO all centered in my not having as firm a grasp on that as I thought I did.
    Many thanks Peter.

  4. Steve,

    Great list you’ve started — some suggested additions:

    Managing / leading peoplel through change

    How work WITH your board

    Time management skills / system, such as David Allen GTD


    Strategic planning resources

    Engaging volunteers at multiple org levels (board / strategic / events / fund dev / programs)

    Marketing principles

  5. Leaders need to be focused on the intersection between what their organization does well, what it alone can do, and what their audience wants. NPOs get in trouble when they fail to stay in that zone. Chasing grants and broadening scope beyond the org’s sweet spot are where they go awry.

  6. @Greg-Thank you. The time management skills is an area of competency that definitely should have been listed. I’ve admired GTD but haven’t done a good job of implementing. Someday, I hope.

  7. @Katya–Thanks so much for your comments. I can imagine a Venn Diagram on a flip chart! Perfect visual for your reminder. Chasing dollars for grants or $10 donations is hazardous. Thank for you the perspective. Good stuff.

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