How can we Empower more Women to Lead our Major Nonprofits?

In the nonprofit sector, it is generally men who are the execs, CEOs or Board Leaders of larger organizations. Women tend to be execs of smaller organizations and fill the non-officer roles on boards. This dynamic begs the frequently discussed question: How can we shift this balance to ensure greater gender equity in nonprofit leadership roles?

Nonprofit Leadership in Numbers

The latest statistics reveal a stark reality: although women comprise as much as 48% of nonprofit executive board members, they are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions, with only 42% serving as executive board chairs. Moreover, a staggering three-quarters of employees in the nonprofit sector are women, yet when it comes to larger organizations, men predominantly assume the role of CEO.

Despite these disparities, there is undeniable evidence of women’s profound impact in the nonprofit sector. Notably, women often spearhead the inception of nonprofit organizations, with approximately 90% of nonprofits in the United States with budgets under a million dollars being led by women. These grassroots initiatives demonstrate women’s innate compassion and commitment to addressing local issues and fostering positive change within their communities.

Representation at Leadership Level 

Many nonprofits exist to improve the lives of women, children and other disadvantaged groups. For me, this is exactly why it’s so important to have women at the table where decisions are being made. 

Similarly, having a board that includes at least some representation of the people the organization serves can be really powerful. So how do we empower more women to ascend the career ladder to executive roles in larger nonprofits, while encouraging men to address the issues affecting their direct communities?

At Athena, I work with nonprofits of varying sizes – rather than entering into a binary gender debate, I believe we need to focus on fostering collaboration and inclusivity to drive meaningful change.

Allyship and Inclusivity 

One key strategy is to promote greater visibility and recognition of women’s contributions within nonprofit organizations. Highlighting the invaluable skills and expertise that women bring to the table can help shift perceptions and break down barriers to advancement. Additionally, implementing targeted mentorship and leadership development programs can provide women with the support and resources they need to thrive in leadership roles.

Furthermore, it’s crucial to encourage men to actively engage with local issues and advocate for gender equality within their organizations. By fostering a culture of inclusivity and allyship, men can play a pivotal role in dismantling systemic barriers and promoting gender equity in nonprofit leadership.

The Athena mission is to make the world a better place by strengthening cause-driven organizations through the development of dynamic Boards of Directors. Through collaborative efforts and a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, nonprofits can harness the full potential of their leadership teams to help drive positive social change.

Embrace Diversity to Empower a Positive Change

While the gender gap in nonprofit leadership may seem a daunting one, it also presents an opportunity for growth and transformation. Advancing women leaders in nonprofit can have a ripple effect on advancing leaders in all business sectors. By embracing diversity and empowering women to take on more leadership roles, nonprofits can cultivate more inclusive and effective organizations that are better equipped to address the complex challenges of our time.

As we scratch the surface of this topic, I would love to have you share your thoughts and reflections to this conversation.

Plan for a Great Year-end Now

There are many different ways to raise money for the great causes in our communities. Getting your hardware store to have customers round-up, special events, mailings, selling cookies, and many, many more! In my career as an Executive Director and in the work I do now as a Consultant, I’ve always been much more passionate about the relationship side of fundraising than the transactional side. 

When we get nameless, faceless individuals to give us money on impulse or out of feelings of obligation or guilt, we are essentially making a transaction. It’s usually a one-time deal, and we never see the person again. There is nothing at all wrong with this. Many organizations are able to raise significant funds in this way. It’s just that I don’t get excited about it. 

The aspect of fundraising that motivates me is connecting people to causes that they care deeply about. To me, helping people to consider ways that they can make our communities stronger and healthier is what the nonprofit sector is all about. It involves drawing out empathy and compassion, then facilitating opportunities to direct those emotions into action and impact. This starts with developing relationships and your Board of Directors is a great place to begin laying the foundation of relationship-based development. 

At the end of the year, many organizations focus a great deal of energy on tasks that drive transactional giving. This is totally understandable – there are budgets to meet and year-end generosity and tax advantages to capitalize on. However, I want to spend this article giving you five strategies that you can put in place now (or over the next few months) that will help you sail into Q4 with confidence. 

Strategy #1 – Evaluate your Board of Directors

Is your board engaged? Do they care about the critical social issue you are addressing? Do they joyfully give their time, talent and treasure to advance the work you are doing to make your community a better place? Your board should be made up of your most enthusiastic and dedicated donors and volunteers. If they are not, it’s likely time for a shakedown. Imagine the year-end potential if you have a dozen raving fans out in the community sharing the importance of the work you do! 

Strategy #2 – Educate your Board of Directors 

Many people join boards because they care about the issue and advancing the solution, but they don’t know how to help. If they are not given direction, they often become disengaged, or they focus their energy in ways that are not helpful to the organization. Staff are already more than busy, and do not have time to download the massive amount of knowledge they have accumulated while working in the industry. 

So how do you bring volunteers up to speed so they can be actively involved in advancing the work? Give homework. Here are a few ideas that can help your volunteers understand your cause better. 

    • Assign research on the history or root cause of the issue your agency addresses. What are the underlying issues that many people don’t understand? 
    • Assign interviews with other agencies tackling different aspects of the issue. How do the different agencies work together? What other opportunities exist for tackling the problem? Why should we or should we not expand to address the issue in different ways? 
    • Assign interviews with constituents to help understand the impact of the issue. What do we think we know, but we really don’t? 
    • If possible, send them through an experience that helps them understand the work better. Poverty simulations, accessing services as a potential constituent, participating in programs, serving as a front-line volunteer, and more can give volunteers a deeper understanding of the cause. 

Have volunteers do their homework, then present it to the full board during a regular meeting. Them doing the research is going to make the learning more impactful, and they will likely come away with significantly different learnings than if staff had just told them what they know. 

Board members with a strong understanding of the problem and the unique way their organization is addressing the problem, are excited about sharing your amazing work and engaging other people in the solution. 

Strategy #3 – Engage your Board of Directors

Boards that come together every month or so just to hear about operations, are totally missing the point. Board and committee meetings should be centered on the work that the volunteers are doing to advance the cause. A planning or strategic retreat early in the fiscal year can help clarify the work that they need to be doing. If your agency is new to engaging your governance volunteers in appropriate work, here are a few ideas that can come out of intentionally planning their focus:

    • Expand upon the education homework to deepen understanding
    • Debate the merits of expanding or staying narrowly focused
    • Identify marketing opportunities for participants or donors
    • Discuss ways to deepen relationships with potential participants or donors 
    • Consider the strategies of other industries and how they may inform your work
    • Compare funding streams with those of other agencies and discuss
    • Identify XX prospects who should be friends of your organization and strategize how to establish and strengthen those relationships
    • Create policies to ensure long-term success
    • Plan for change, challenges and growth

These are just a few ideas, and of course – they will totally depend on the work and stage of your organization. The idea is to strengthen your board, their understanding and commitment to your work. As a result, you multiply the number of voices you have in your community sharing your stories. 

Strategy #4 – Tell different kinds of stories

Different brains work differently. There are a myriad of personality tests out there to prove it. So if you are only telling one kind of story, you are likely only connecting with one type of brain. Very generally speaking, these four different types of stories will appeal to four different types of potential friends of your organization:

    • Empathetic – these folks want to hear the stories about the people impacted by the problem and how you are helping them
    • Analytic – tell them about the numbers of people affected, financial burdens created by the problem, money saved by your solution, etc
    • Big Picture – give them the vision of how the world will be a better place because of your work
    • Process – this group wants to understand the problem and the way that you are fixing it

Oftentimes we just tell stories that pull at the heartstrings. Those are important stories, but for some people that’s just white noise. By telling different types of stories, you will pique the interest of more people and more potential year-end givers. When you educated your board on the different kinds of stories that can be told, you help them grow, and they become better story tellers for you. 

Strategy #5 – Capture and Communicate

I’ve talked before about the idea of friend-raising. This involves connecting people to your organization so that they care and hopefully want to volunteer, donate, spread the word, or engage in some other way. To friend-raise, you need to get out and talk to people about the work you are doing. Go to Rotary Clubs and networking groups and farmers markets. Seize every opportunity to tell your stories. This is how you spread awareness and find more potential “friends” of your organization.

If you are not already doing this, establish a system for capturing anyone who has potential to be a friend. In addition to name and contact information, collect how they connected to the organization, who would be a good person to follow-up, and rank whether they are a casual friend, a connected friend, or a committed friend. This can be a sophisticated CRM or an excel spreadsheet. 

When you (staff or volunteers) are out in the community speaking about your agency, note the people who ask the extra questions. Or the ones who have a personal story to tell you. Or the ones who stick around afterwards to talk more about the issue. These are perfect people to add to your list. 

Once you have a list, follow-up with them multiple times throughout the year. Send pictures from events, updates on impact, information about upcoming engagement opportunities, success stories, and more. Set a goal of connecting with organizational friends X times throughout the year. The purpose of the communications should be to deepen the relationship (they can include a “soft ask” if it feels appropriate). The bigger goal is to give them reasons why they want to donate during your year-end efforts. 

There you go! Five things that you (staff and volunteer leadership) can do now or throughout the year, to help make Q4 successful, fun and prosperous for your organization. 

I help organizations to create the volunteer leadership they need to advance their work and help make our world a better place. Email me at, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss ways to strengthen your Board of Directors and the work of your agency.

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.

Board of Directors Evaluation

More and more lately I’ve been asked to conduct board evaluations. This has been a good way to develop a relationship with an organization, and to help them when they know something “just isn’t right.” Oftentimes a nonprofit leader can tell that things are not going the way they want them to, but they just can’t put their finger on the actual problem (or problems). That’s where I come into the picture!

When I start visiting with an agency, I usually begin by asking them a few questions. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get them thinking and moving in the right direction. More often, those questions lead to even more questions, which leads to me coming in to provide a full evaluation. 

The components of a full evaluation can look different from agency to agency, depending on the size, longevity, whether or not they have paid staff, and more. There are several things I look at when evaluating the health and effectiveness of a board. Some include: 

  • The Executive/Board Chair relationship
  • Executive Director’s thoughts on board leadership
  • Board President’s understanding of board leadership
  • Management tools that have been established 
  • Communication systems
  • Official or implied board expectations
  • The board’s effectiveness in carrying out their responsibilities
  • Whether or not the board is fulfilling their duties

Let’s look at each of these aspects of nonprofit leadership.

Executive Director/Board Chair Relationship

Some organizations have the Executive Director report to an Executive Committee, the Human Resources Committee, or even the whole board. Any of those options are fine. The important thing is that there is a healthy, open and honest relationship between the Executive Director and the person or group they report to. 

This relationship is unique to the nonprofit sector and can be tricky. In many organizations the Executive Director drives the work and leadership of the Board of Directors. The tricky part comes up because the board is actually the supervisor of the exec. So the board supervises the individual who informs and guides their work. Even in agencies where the board is largely self-governing, the exec and the board rely on one another to drive their pieces of the organization.

This relationship is key to the success of the nonprofit. It requires mutual respect and an understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. Clear, open and consistent communication is the foundation to ensuring relationship success. 

Executive Director’s Thoughts on Board Leadership

Whether the exec likes it or not, some portion of their job involves board leadership. Every organization is different and therefore, what each nonprofit needs from their board is different. Since the Executive Director works in the agency every day, she or he is best informed about what the organization needs from its volunteers. The board looks to the exec to shape their work. 

Additionally, no one is born knowing how to be a good board member. Even when someone comes to a board with experience serving on other Boards of Directors, it doesn’t mean they know how best to serve this organization. 

When evaluating this aspect of an agency, I consider whether the exec wants to be completely hands off, or if they are trying to micromanage the volunteers. Either can lead to challenges. Going back to the previous point, we look at the communication that has happened between the board and the exec. Have they addressed what roles each will fill? If not, how does anyone know what they should be focusing their energy on? 

Board President’s Understanding of Board Leadership

What does the board president believe their role is? Are they there to just lead meetings? Should they be driving a set of strategies? Can they address volunteers who are not contributing? Not to sound like a broken record on these first three bullets, but it all comes down to the relationship and communication between the exec and the board. 

Management Tools

In case it hasn’t been clear so far – effective nonprofit leadership boils down to relationships. However, putting tools and processes in place can help ensure that the work that goes into building great relationships is well managed. Pieces that I recommend boards establish include: 

      • Clear board expectations
      • A process for deepening connections
      • System for tracking prospects
      • Clear and thoughtful communication systems
      • A thoughtful and thorough on-boarding process
      • Professional and effective board meetings 

Without some of these basic processes in place agencies often end up spinning their wheels. They have great conversations with no system for following up. They create great connections, but lose track of the individuals. Or they attract really great board or donor prospects, and end up scaring them away by appearing unorganized and unprofessional. 

Communication Systems

I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. A communication system does not need to be elaborate. However, it does need to be thoughtful and intentional. Without a plan, emails can spiral out of control. Pretty soon, no one wants to be associated with the organization because they cannot handle the number of communications they receive. 

Well functioning organizations come to an agreement as a board/staff team about how often they communicate and in what manner. They establish an understanding about etiquette. When there is a real emergency, they can deviate from their plan, otherwise they trust their system and make adjustments as needed. 

Board Expectations

I touched on board expectations under the management tools section. Like communication, this component is so important that I wanted to call it out separately as well. 

No one likes to commit to something if they don’t know what they are getting themselves into, right? This is especially true with joining boards. When a new board member is recruited, there’s a good chance that this is their first experience serving on a Board. It’s an unknown for them. Using Board Expectations as a recruiting tool can answer a ton of questions for them and help them to make a good decision about getting involved. 

Your expectations can be used for evaluating the board’s performance as a whole and as individuals. You can also reference it when dealing with issues of engagement or to raise the bar for the board team. As an organization’s needs change, board expectations are easy to change and update. Expectations should tie directly to what an agency needs its volunteers to be doing in order to advance the cause.

Board Responsibilities

 Every board has three overarching responsibilities. The governance volunteers are responsible for the mission, vision, and strategies. They ensure the organization has the resources (usually people and money) to deliver the mission, vision, and strategies. And they are responsible for making certain that the organization is operating legally and in a fiscally appropriate manner. 

These three functions are consistent across all Boards of Directors. A board evaluation looks at the extent to which the board owns these responsibilities. Sometimes it is a matter of seeing if they even understand that they should be owning them. 

Board Duties

Lastly, I like to review the board’s relationship to the duties of a Board of Directors. Like board responsibilities, duties are the same from one organization to the next. Responsibilities differ from duties in that responsibilities are functions, things the board does. The duties of the board speak more to how the board conducts itself.

Board duties include: Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of Obedience. Again, when evaluating an organization, I gauge their understanding of these duties, and their commitment to them. 

Conducting a board evaluation involves interviews with organizational leaders, review of documents, and sometimes attending a board meeting. It concludes with a report to the organization outlining and prioritizing opportunities for improvement. When a nonprofit knows that their board needs work, but they don’t know where to begin, an evaluation is a great place to start! 

Do you know of a Board of Directors that could be stronger, more efficient, or more effective? I’d love to visit with them to see if I can get them moving in the right direction. Email me at, let’s chat!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.