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The 8 Key Findings of “The Wake Up Call” Nonprofit Leadership Report

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The recently released and breakthrough research report entitled The Wake Up Call – A Study of Nonprofit Leadership in the U.S. and its Impending Crisis can be found in its entirety here

Nearly 1,200 nonprofit leaders participated in this research project that should sound a warning cry for nonprofit sector. The scope and recent timing of this project should be required reading for any nonprofit board member.

The summarized key findings below should fully arouse the curiosity of everyone reading this blog post to dig deeper into what affect the findings have on the future leadership of every charity they touch as a volunteer leader, volunteer and donor.

The first four key findings are the four types of leadership styles as well as the percentage of those styles in use in the 1,152 responses. They are:

1. Servant Leadership 53.7%

By far the most widely chosen of the leadership styles and perhaps rightly so for the nonprofit sector where the following description of Servant Leadership fits nicely into place.

Here is how the report defined this first style:

“Greenleaf (1977), considered to be the founder of the modern servant leadership movement, sees servant leaders as individuals who achieve superior organizational performance by focusing on the needs of their followers. The servant leader carries a strong sense of accountability for those affected by their thoughts, words, and actions (Frick and Spears, 1996) and can be highly motivational to work for as a consequence. Rather than leading for personal gain or power, they exercise their authority only as a means to help others achieve their fullest potential.”

2. Transformational Leadership 34.8%

The second most widely chosen of the leadership styles is also one that most board members would find appealing their organization’s top leaders.  

Here is how the report defined Transformational Leadership:

“Sullivan and Decker (2001) define transformational leadership as “a leadership style focused on effecting revolutionary change in organizations through a commitment to the organization’s vision.” Transformational leadership is therefore capable of redefining individual perceptions of the organizational mission/vision, unifying this view and then stimulating high levels of motivation directed toward its fulfillment.”

3. Charismatic Leadership 29.4%

The third most prevalent leadership style is one often found in founders who remain as leaders. This group of leaders must be careful as the report reveals possible shortcomings from such a style.

Here is how the report defined Charismatic Leadership:

“Charismatic leadership is the process of encouraging certain behaviors in others through force of personality, persuasion and eloquent communication. It shares with transformational leadership a focus on building up enthusiasm in others for a stated vision or goal. But Conger (1999) asserts that what distinguishes charismatic leaders from others is the manner in which they articulate that vision to both their followers and to the organization’s hierarchy. Their presentation demonstrates their own convictions, self-confidence, and dedication to materialize what they advocate while showing a similar high degree of confidence in the abilities of their team. The self-confidence exuded by these leaders can also enable them (or their teams) to take a higher degree of risk than their peers.”

4, Transactional Leadership 5.1%

We should not be surprised that Transactional Leadership was the least prevalent style chosen since the use of key objectives and metrics is often not emphasized as strongly in the charity world as it is in the commercial sector.

Here is how the report authors defined this style:

“Transactional leadership has been defined as “an exchange process based on the fulfillment of contractual obligations and is typically represented as setting objectives and monitoring and controlling outcomes” (Aga, 2016). Transactional leadership is said to build on the concept of contingent reinforcement, in which followers are motivated by their leaders’ promises, rewards and praises.”

5. Strategic Planning Performed by 90%

Seeing a percentage of ninety percent would at first lead everyone to believe that strategic planning is a strong and useful guide for our nonprofit leaders. However, as one digs deeper into the report these findings were revealing.

“Strategic planning, or many aspects of it, appears to be absent or underdeveloped in many organizations. Only 55.8% of respondents agreed that staff at all levels were engaged in the planning process.”

The true key response is how few (less than 50%) of the leaders and their teams are held accountable to the strategic plan in evaluating their performance.

6. Less Than 23% Have A Leadership Succession Plan in Place

There is little else to be added to this key finding except to ask why. Just the mere exercise of creating a succession plan should be required by every nonprofit board. Trying to create one upon the departure of a leader is too late!

7. 21.4% of Leaders Felt Confident of Their Abilities

So much of this lack of confidence can be tied to lack of training opportunities offered and actually utilized.

Added to this is the lack of formal appraisals of our nonprofit leaders being done on any sort of a regular basis. Such a review or appraisal being performed annually by the board or board chairman of the CEO was done only 54.8% of the time.

Finally, the use of surveys to measure the satisfaction level of the staff, or even the key financial supporters, was rarely in place.  

8. Most Team Members Did Not Believe a Culture of Philanthropy Exists

This finding was in contrast to the belief that the leaders had about their own contribution to the culture of philanthropy. Most leaders had a high level of confidence in their contribution to philanthropy.

This did not translate into the team members feeling strong and positive about the level of the culture of philanthropy within their organization. The report pointed out that some of this opinion could stem from a lack of knowledge regarding the influencing factors and overall importance of donor loyalty.


The eight findings above were critical to my view of this groundbreaking research report. There are many other key findings that will be revealed as you peruse the report.

Perhaps those findings combined with the ones outlined above will lead to positive change in your organization.

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