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The Power Team, Part II: The CEO

The nonprofit field is full of leadership opportunities. From my experience as a fundraiser and nonprofit leader for the last 38 years, I think that an organization's ability to succeed is determined by the leadership characteristics of the chief executive officer (CEO). As I look at the successes of the broader institution, it is clear that this individual's traits or behaviors have the most direct impact. The CEO's capacity to provide the vision and forum for others to excel has become more and more clear to me as I have worked with organizations throughout the years.

Consistent behaviors are evident in the successful leaders I have met through working, reading, or listening. I've learned that leaders are: bold, compassionate, decisive, and determined. They take risks, share glory, take blame, fail, and win.

The CEO of a nonprofit institution is often at the greatest disadvantage in the power team leading the institution. Frequently, she or he has come from a programmatic, academic, or institutional position where the conditioning has little or nothing to do with managerial or inspirational leadership.

Since Ketchum has served countless health care organizations, I will use the hospital as a classic example. Only 15-20 years ago, it was quite common for a medical doctor to be the CEO of the hospital. Although the physician was very well regarded as a medical doctor, individual, and humanitarian, rarely did that person possess the large-picture vision, leadership skills, and requisite business sense to be a successful hospital administrator. Many well-noted physicians made messes of their administrations. Largely because medical training did not provide the necessary leadership and business skills, the profession of hospital administration blessedly emerged. Colleges and universities now provide degrees in the specific field of hospital administration, which allows doctors to practice medicine and administrators to provide the business leadership need to run a successful hospital.

The successful CEO of any nonprofit understands that she or he will unlikely possess all the skills or expertise for the job; thus those surrounding the executive must add to the skill, talent, and experience pool. Hiring a good, competent staff and letting them do good work is one of the benefits afforded top executives. Unfortunately, this benefit is often not used to its fullest potential. At times, good fundraisers are hired, yet executives doubt and second-guess their direction, because:

  • They are so unfamiliar with some of the relationship concepts based on their identity as a member of the institution.
  • They are not sure they deserve the CEO position and are afraid to be perceived as weak if they take counsel from those around them. (This is also a reason why so many new nonprofit CEOs tend to fire the development executive and hire their own loyal friends.)
  • They need to bolster their own ego and self-image by taking credit for all good deeds instead of giving credit.
Leadership is often confused with competence in their field, good research and publications, intelligence and persistence. Now these are all worthy individual traits, but leadership has more to do with the capacity to inspire people than to show off.

Of course, whatever the job description, real leaders lead. The individuals who are appointed to these assignments of leadership will succeed or fail based on who they are as much, if not more than, what they know.

Bob Carter, Ketchum
© 2006, Ketchum

Having engaged with more than 11,000 clients since its founding in 1919, Ketchum is the nation's leading fundraising counseling firm to nonprofits. Bob Carter is president of Ketchum and leads the firm's sales and marketing teams. He also provides senior-level development, management, and campaign counsel to a broad cross section of gift-supported organizations. You can reach Bob at
Topics: Senior Executive Issues