Why We Must Have Leadership Development in Nonprofits and Churches

December 23, 2019

Nonprofit organizations and churches are often understaffed and underfunded, resulting in over-worked mid-level managers. Most nonprofit managers and church pastors face the challenge of running a program, managing staff, providing monthly board reports, helping with various fundraising responsibilities, and last but not least, developing leaders within their staff. Sadly, all of the challenges nonprofit leaders face often prevent leadership development from occurring.

Why We Must Have Leadership Development in Nonprofits and Churches

Photo Credit: Robert Sullivan

While developing leaders can yield the highest outcomes for employee productivity and improvement in the community, this area often gets put aside amongst other pressures because it does not provide immediate results. Investing in leadership development, whether financially or timely, “can feel like a luxury compared with investing in needs at the heart of a nonprofit charitable purpose, but failure to invest in leadership, as well as services, puts the entire mission at risk.” 1 Investments in leadership development for nonprofit and church staff must be made.


I experienced this lack of leadership development during the six years I was an employee at a nonprofit organization. My primary responsibilities were to recruit, equip, train, and lead approximately 125 volunteers. During those five years I had three direct supervisors. These individuals were responsible for my growth as a competent employee and potential future leader within our organization.

My First Supervisor

As a twenty-two-year-old employee, my first supervisor provided a good orientation and training for me to learn the basics of my job. He took me along on his work, showed me the ropes, and gave me some basic guidance on how to do my job.  

My Second Supervisor

My second supervisor was good at providing clear goals and expectations for what I was and was not supposed to do. As an employee with some experience and skills, this was a good fit for me as I was provided freedom to complete my work in ways that matched my strengths.  This supervisor only wanted to know my results and ensure I had what I needed to succeed in my basic job responsibilities. Neither of these two supervisors showed interest in nor provided guidance for me to develop as a leader. Each was very busy and had a long list of responsibilities which left little time for leadership development of a younger staff member.

My Third Supervisor

Finally, my third supervisor expressed interest in training me as a leader. Entering that working relationship was an important element in my growth as an employee and future leader. By the time supervisor number three became my boss I had become well skilled at doing my normal job. Yet she took the time to review my performance evaluations conducted before her arrival to assess my strengths and weaknesses. Based on these evaluations she and I discussed my desire to have a leadership position. Supervisor number three saw that while I had an opportunity to lead our volunteers’ council, I also needed to have someone to regularly talk to and discuss issues with. She worked with me on my one-year goals and determined we would follow up with each other every three months for a brief meeting to see how I was progressing.

My own experience of trying to develop as a leader in a nonprofit organization led me to research how leaders in nonprofit organizations and churches can develop potential leaders. Did all of my three supervisors at my past job want to develop me as a leader?

I would think yes, but they lacked time to regularly invest in that for the future benefit of our organization. Therefore, I would characterize each of my three supervisors as good people who did a good job of managing me; yet they all faced the same issue. They recognized the need to develop me into a competent leader but lacked the time to implement leadership development.


My experience is not an isolated experience. This is a common problem in the nonprofit sector. To benefit the agency, management must develop future leaders yet lacks the time to do so.

The Future of Nonprofit and Church Leadership

Nonprofit leaders “grasp the value and importance of leadership development while conceding that it is something they do haphazardly and inconsistently, if it happens at all.” 2 This lack of leadership development is something that might not affect nonprofit organizations’ impact on the community today, but it will affect the future success of the nonprofit. Lack of leadership development leads to “missed opportunities and organizational missteps. Hence, when the pool of capable organizational leaders is not continually nurtured, the organization may stagnate in the short term and become vulnerable in the long term.” 3

(My book, How Time-crunched Leaders Develop Potential Potential Leaders can help you with this problem.)

Differences in Money Spent on Leadership Training between Nonprofit and For ProfitLack of Support in Finances

One might think that since management personnel often lack time to develop leaders besides their many other responsibilities, the solution is to send staff to outside leadership trainings. Thus, many may see budgeting for outside leadership development training as the biggest inhibitor of leadership development. Research conducted by The Foundation Center in 2011 found that while for-profit companies spend $150 per employee per year in leadership training, the nonprofit sector only spends $29 per employee per year in leadership training. 4 

Money Won’t Solve the Problem

However, the nonprofit battle cry of “we don’t have enough resources” is not an excuse for training and developing nonprofit leaders for “the lack of a discretionary budget for outside training should not be considered an insurmountable barrier to development.” 5 Numerous examples have shown that simply throwing money at a problem rarely solves it. One organizational leadership expert explains that expensive formal training programs are a “distant third in the hierarchy of effective leadership training techniques.” 6 Outside leadership development trainings are not as effective as in-house and on-the-job trainings.

On the Job Training Is Best

Research conducted by The Bridgespan Group in 2012 shows that only 28 percent of nonprofit leaders have leadership plans for individuals to address leadership gaps. Yet, the best news is that 65 percent of nonprofit leaders report they have plenty of on-the-job opportunities for leadership development. 7


These “on-the-job” opportunities might be the best means for developing future leaders for these opportunities rarely cost additional funds and do not require potential leaders to spend time away at expensive training events. I will explore several of these opportunities in the chapters that follow. But first, let’s look at the importance of your organization’s culture and other staff when developing leaders.


  1. Kirk Kramer and Preeta Nayak, “A 5-Point Plan for Grooming Future Leaders,” Chronicle of Philanthropy 24, no. 14, June 28, 2012. Accessed May 14, 2015.
  2. Kirk Kramer, “Solving the Time and Money Puzzle in Leadership Development,” Nonprofit Quarterly, December 11, 2012. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/management/21481-solving-the-time-and-money-puzzle-in-leadership-development.html. Accessed May 28, 2015.
  3. Karen Jones, “Preparing an Organization to Sustain Capable Leadership,” Nonprofit Quarterly, June 21, 2008. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/management/1022-preparing-an-organization-to-sustain-capable-leadership-html. Accessed May 28, 2015.
  4. Laura Callanan, “Under-Investing in Social Sector Leadership,” Philanthropy News Digest, February 11, 2014. http://pndblog.typepad.com/pndblog/2014/02/underinvesting-in-social-sector-leadership.html. Accessed July 9, 2015.
  5. Karen Jones, “Sustain Capable Leadership.”
  6. Kirk Kramer, “Solving the Time and Money Puzzle.”
  7. The Bridgespan Group, “The Challenge of Developing Future Leaders: Survey Results Say…” (Boston, MA: The Bridgespan Group, 2012), http://www.bridgespan.org/Publications-and-Tools/Career-Professional-Development/Develop-My-Staff/The-Challenge-of-Developing-Future-Leaders-Survey.aspx#.VaewaPlVikp. Accessed May 15, 2015.

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington and is the host of The Daily Sermon Podcast. Learn more at www.lakeviewmissionarychurch.com/

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