Create a nonprofit culture of shared leadership in your organization

Many of us who grew up with the Internet simply have a different way of looking at the world compared to previous generations.

Take access to information: the Internet has democratized access to and dissemination of information in some very dramatic ways since the early 1990s. These different views spill over into the workplace, especially in terms of expectations around access to information, transparency, communication and decision-making. Within many nonprofits, leadership structures are lagging behind these shifts through the continued embrace of hierarchy, creating challenges for established leaders, younger employees and everyone else in between.

Less hierarchy equals better impact

This continued reliance on hierarchical structures has been repeatedly cited by young nonprofit leaders as one of the key barriers to leadership development in the sector. Ready to Lead: Next Generation Leaders Speak Out, a nationwide report published in 2008, states that organizations that maintain traditional hierarchical structures “risk perpetuating power structures that alienate emerging leadership talent in their organizations.” The report continues, “Executives who adapt their organizational cultures for less traditional hierarchy, while holding everyone accountable for meaningful mission impact, are in the best position to attract and retain the next generation of leadership.”

Opportunities versus challenges

Even though these generational differences often play out as challenges, many opportunities come along with adopting flatter structures and shared leadership models. Organizations that diffuse decision-making and communications are often more adaptable, which can lead to greater sustainability. Also, organizational cultures that integrate shared leadership practices often better demonstrate the values that many nonprofits exist to uphold. On a practical level, shared leadership models can also create a higher level of engagement and buy-in among staff and can promote the leadership development and retention of employees.

Shared leadership can be defined in many different ways, and practices fall along a continuum. The chart below summarizes some of the key practices that often differentiate leadership models within a nonprofit environment:

Area Hierarchical structure Shared leadership model
Decision-making Top management. Important decisions communicated down without input. Collaborative decision-making. Input from appropriate staff members is regularly sought and considered in any important decision.
Communications Top-down, one-way, infrequent.  Increased transparency, staff members have a say in all important decisions.
Structure Hierarchy Flattened hierarchy, networked, matrix, or collaborative
Planning Board and ED develop, staff implements. Partners in determining the organization’s future, all staff play some role.
Processes Directive Collective
Culture Resistant to change Encourages new ideas and innovation from all staff
Definition of “leader” Executive director and possibly select senior managers The organization cultivates leaders at all levels.
Ideas that some organizations are testing out Co-directors (separate internal and external focus) 

Management teams that report to the board, with the executive director serving as an equal member of the group

Strategic plans are developed with equal input and decision-making between board members and staff

If your organization has a traditional structure, testing out new approaches in areas like decision-making and leadership can be a good place to start to integrate some of these practices within your organization.

Here are some ideas to consider:

Use staff meetings to discuss critical issues and gather input, rather than reporting. Select an issue that is affecting your organization’s work and facilitate a conversation to get staff member input on addressing that issue, both short- and long-term. After some discussion, identify ways your team as a whole can work to address the issue, and then follow-through.

Include staff as partners in strategic planning. This can include something as simple as gathering staff input through an anonymous survey, to hosting multiple staff work sessions as part of the planning process, to fully integrating the staff, board, and your organization’s constituents into a partnership to create a plan for your organization’s future.

Gather staff input on a regular basis through anonymous staff satisfaction surveys and on important decisions affecting the organization. For staff surveys, openly share results and commit to addressing at least two or three things as a team.

Empower staff members at all levels to participate in setting goals in their functional areas and for their own performance, rather than prescribing deliverables and expectations.

Increase access to information and cultivate a culture of transparency. Additional transparency can include sharing board packets, financial information and program evaluation information, along with things like inviting staff members to observe or report at board meetings.

With younger leaders assuming leadership positions, formal and informal, within the sector on an increasingly frequent basis, shared leadership models are likely to become more and more prevalent. Help ensure that your organization can both attract this talent and maintain its relevancy by starting to integrate some of these practices in your organization. In addition to possibly strengthening your own organization, you can contribute to the retention and development of the next generation of sector leaders today.

This chart is adapted from “Shared Leadership: Why it Matters and How to Help Nonprofits Get There.” Alliance for Nonprofit Management Conference 2010, Judy Freiwirth, Psy D., Dahnesh Medora, and Deborah Meehan.

See also:

The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide: Revealing the Hidden Truths that Impact Performance

Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity

Liquid Leadership: From Woodstock to Wikipedia – Multigenerational Management Ideas That Are Changing the Way We Run Things

Image credits:,

One response to “Create a nonprofit culture of shared leadership in your organization”

  1. Emily Davis says:


    I love this post and truly appreciate your sharing your experience with it. Judy Freiwirth is really brilliant at these conversations and the concept of shared leadership is one of my favorite things to share. Thank you for contributing your thoughts. I’ll certainly be sharing!


Leave a reply

Welcome! Please provide your log-in information below.
Forget your password?
Enter your email or user name and your log-in information will be sent to the email on file.