Illustration of writing an article on a laptop

ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Nonprofit leadership models: moving beyond hierarchies and empowering teams

leadership models

America’s workplaces are changing and the nonprofit sector is no exception. 

A June 2023 report revealed that 42% of workers actively plan to or already have left their jobs this year. Similarly, reports estimated in 2020 estimated that 45% of nonprofit employees would seek a new position in the following five years. Throughout a variety of surveys and studies sharing similar data, one factor in work dissatisfaction remains consistent: bad leadership. 

Nonprofit employees are looking to change the way that they work and they are willing to make great sacrifices to do it. Throughout the sector, staff members are demanding a change in how organizations are run including a greater voice in decision-making, more inclusive management practices and a better work-life balance. As the shortcomings of the traditional leadership model continue to show, nonprofits need to make an effort to cultivate leadership that not only commands but also inspires. 

Transformational leadership

Far from a new concept, transformational leadership models first took root in the late 20th century with author James MacGregor Burns. Burns described the term leadership as “prescriptive” rather than descriptive, equating leadership as a “moral imperative” and dismissing the concept of bad leadership as a paradox in itself.

Transformational leaders, by definition, seek to respond directly to the wants and needs of those around them — a model that goes hand-in-hand with the mission-driven nature of nonprofits. In the workplace, a transformational leader prioritizes the personal relationships between themselves and their subordinates. They communicate freely, connect authentically and provide support endlessly. In nonprofits, this is often done in relation to the organization’s mission. For example, in a nonprofit that values education, a transformational leader might promote the education of its team members through internal workshops or promoting other development opportunities. Transformational leadership is proven to benefit productivity levels and employee development, despite burnout-related drawbacks within leadership. 

Laissez-faire leadership 

The laissez-faire leadership model is a far cry from the hierarchies built into most leadership frameworks. Deriving from the French “laisser-faire” and evolving into a common American saying meaning “without interference,” laissez-faire leadership is exactly as it sounds. This model embraces the independence and individual expertise of staff members, somewhat rejecting the concept of “a leader” outright. 

In a laissez-faire organization, staff and leaders alike make their own decisions, set their own deadlines, solve their own problems, and overall act according to their own expertise. Leaders and managers are expected to take an entirely hands-off approach. While the style may come with productivity drawbacks, it makes up for it with benefits in higher worker satisfaction, better employee retention, greater potential for innovation and improved decision-making efficiency. For nonprofits with limited managerial resources or a decentralized work structure, a laissez-faire style could benefit not just individual employees but the entire organization. With nonprofit work becoming increasingly hybrid or remote, a laissez-faire leadership style aligns well with the asynchronous nature of working from home. 

Democratic leadership

A workplace democracy takes the hallmarks of a democratic political structure and moves them into the workplace, complete with voting, debates and sometimes even full worker ownership. Democratic leadership is a halfway point between full workplace democracy and traditional hierarchy. 

A workplace embracing a democratic leadership framework values worker feedback above all else. This feedback is then implemented in changing policies and other facets of the workplace. Under this system, employees feel more engaged and appreciated. They are given recognition for their achievements and accountability for their failings. In nonprofits, democratic leadership can be implemented even more comprehensively. For example, staff members can be involved in “electing” board members or organizing their own committees.  While not the most timely leadership framework, democratic leadership encourages a level of employee satisfaction that is difficult to cultivate with other leadership styles.

Image by Lillian Finley

Learn more leadership strategies with our Executive Leadership Certificate

The Nonprofit Executive Leadership Certificate is designed to meet the professional needs of executive directors, senior-level managers and emerging executives of nonprofit and public organizations, offered in a cohort format to promote skill-building and peer networking among seasoned leaders facing challenges just like yours.

The instructional team for this certificate includes current and former CEOs and executive directors of nonprofit organizations, with extensive experience as change-making practitioners in the social sector. We provide an engaging, practice-oriented learning environment that focuses on knowledge, skills and techniques that can be put to use immediately.

Lillian Finley headshot


ASU Lodestar Center Blog