The Value of Coaching for Non-Profit Leaders and Staff

The Value of Coaching for Non-Profit Leaders and Staff

8.2 min read

Maxine Scott

Burnout. Too many priorities to tackle. Insufficient resources. Difficulty motivating volunteers or staff. These are the challenges facing executives and managers of non-profit organizations and agencies. Non-profits are having the same problems as for-profit corporations, such as concerns of recruiting and retaining excellent staff, with the added difficulty of fewer resources to execute tasks and to attract employees. In addition, those organizations receiving grantor funding must provide greater assurance that they will be able to deliver on the funded project goals. The work of non-profit organizations is vital to our society, but how do we inspire, motivate, and support the leaders of these important agencies? One of the most proven and cost-effective methods for enhancing loyalty, retention, and the accomplishment of goals is Coaching.

According to Daniel Goleman (2006), psychologist and award-winning author of Emotional Intelligence (EI) says, nonprofit leaders can incorporate different leadership styles in their relationships with employees. The leadership style used least by nonprofit leaders is the Coaching style. In a nutshell, Coaching leaders encourage employees to establish long-term development goals and help them conceptualize a plan for attaining them. The ongoing dialogue in a coaching relationship ensures that employees know what is expected of them, and how their work fits into a larger vision of where the organization is going. Coaching is a relatively new and promising tool for leadership development for non profit leaders who find themselves in an increasingly challenged and often isolated role, according to a national study of nonprofit executive leadership conducted by Compass Point (Wolfred, Belland Moyers, 2001). Statistical surveys and anecdotal evidence alike support Coaching as a great instrument for advancing nonprofit leadership and improving nonprofit organizational effectiveness. Leadership Coaching requires exceptional leadership and questioning skills to be effective. At no point is leadership more important than in assisting others in defining their performance issues and identifying the underlying causes. This Situational Leadership style provides the needed structure to guide leaders in working with their clients.

The underlying principle in Situational Leadership is that Executive Coaches should adjust their leadership styles to their client’s readiness level (ability and willingness) to perform a given task. Leadership is the amount of task behavior (direction) and relationship behavior (support) given by a leader. To be effective the Coach must adjust the way in which they lead their clients based on their level of readiness for each task that they are expected to perform. Leadership coaching is a unique application of the principles of Situational Leadership that guides leader coaches as they work with their clients.

The Situational Leadership method from Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey holds that managers must use different leadership styles depending on the situation. The model allows you to analyze the needs of the situation you’re in, and then use the most appropriate leadership style. Depending on employees’ competences in their task areas and commitment to their tasks, your leadership style should vary from one person to another. You may even lead the same person one way sometimes, and another way at other times.

Blanchard and Hersey (1985) characterized leadership style in terms of the amount of direction and of support that the leader gives to his or her followers, and so created a simple matrix.

The lowest readiness level (D1) for an individual or group is described as not willing and not able to do a given task. The appropriate leadership style (SI) is that of providing high amounts of task behavior (direction) and low amounts of relationship behavior (support). The next readiness level (D2) is described as willing but not able. The appropriate leadership style (S2) is that of high amounts of both task and relationship behavior.

The next readiness level (D3) is described as able but unwilling in that the individual lacks confidence or commitment. The appropriate leadership style (S3) is that of high amounts of relationship behavior and low amounts of task behavior. The highest readiness level for a group or individual to do a given task is willing and able (D4). The appropriate leadership style is that of low amounts of both relationship and task behavior.

Within the learning organization there is a focus on developing new ways of thinking and working (Senge, 1999). A coaching culture is the framework of any learning organization. These organizations are characterized by relationships of trust, collaboration, insightful guidance, and a focus on assisting people to maximize their potential. Learning organizations differ from others in that they have shifted from a focus on performance to an emphasis on sustainable growth. People are given the opportunity to enhance and strengthen the concept of ongoing learning and development by creating a culture where coaching thrives.

Regardless of which enterprise the Coach is engaged in, he or she requires a solid knowledge of the organization.  The coach has to be aware of its climate and culture, the current challenges it faces, its current learning and development programs and its people management programs and philosophy. Although the importance and usefulness of conducting a Coaching Needs Analysis  alone is not sufficient for the Coach to embark upon working in an organization. In the same way, neither process knowledge or proven ability to work with personal mastery skills will equip the Coach to work effectively in an organization.

The Coach has to be familiar with various models of organizational change and the model or framework, either explicit or implicit, within which the particular organization operates. If a Coach chooses to work within an organizational environment, it is recommended that he or she adopt a systemic approach, that is, one that recognizes, acknowledges and can work with both internal and external factors that impact on the organization and its individuals. The Coach’s role may be to focus on human processes in the organization, on organizational design, developing and enhancing job competencies, or on coaching individuals through technology change programs.

The Coach as change agent is a person who is formally conducting a change effort. The change agent is involved in all steps of the process of change. Coaches are required to both change the level and standard of personal and professional skills sets, attitudes, thinking, beliefs, values, motivation of an individual or group, in order to help them (and their organization) perform even better and derive greater satisfaction from their everyday work life and their careers. Coaching is fundamentally about achieving behavioral change (what people do and say).

Coaching Leadership works well when employees want to advance and achieve their potential. This type of leadership doesn’t work as well when employees are resistant to learning or changing their ways. In such situations, nonprofit leaders have to dig below the surface to understand what’s causing the resistance. They will often discover that the resistance stems from a misunderstanding of the process: unlike many so-called “performance improvement plans,” which are thinly disguised warnings to improve one’s performance or face some undesirable consequence, the professional development plan with its clearly defined milestones and measures of success is designed to help employees succeed.

Coaching can occur one-on-one or in groups, on the telephone or in-person. When considering the cost of replacing and training key staff members, volunteers, and leaders, it is one of the most proven and cost-effective methods for enhancing loyalty and retention, the accomplishment of goals, and the power to transform organizations and their communities.In her article, “The Case for a Coach,” in Association Management, April 2001, Sheila

Maher outlines some of the advantages of coaching for non-profit leaders, managers, and volunteers. Maher’s experience coaching key staff officers at various associations has demonstrated that coaching provides:

• The ability to lead with vision rather than just manage day-to-day activities

• Reduction of over-commitment and stress

• Continued strategic thinking even when pulled in many directions

• Maximized staff effectiveness rather than micro-managing

• Using time more effectively

• Improved interpersonal skills in dealing with difficult people

Mary Beth Bos, CFRE, in her article “Leading on the Frontlines with a Coach on the Sidelines,” Customer Development Solutions, quotes a social services executive, a human services executive director, a foundation CEO, and an arts executive director on what they obtained from coaching. Their descriptions can be summarized as:

• Feeling “heard” and being self-expressed

• Establishing a vision, encouraging ownership, fostering partnership, and improving pacing

• Improved ability to be pro-active, accessible and open to staff

• Building cooperation and team-spirit, increased respect from others, and a stronger ability to handle issues before they reach a crisis stage

In addition, the non-profit leader–whether board member, volunteer, executive, or department manager–benefits personally with improved health and well-being, greater life balance, less stress, and greater productivity. The organization benefits from a more well-rounded, loyal, and dedicated leader with a clear vision, better strategies to reach goals, improved relationships with and outside the organization, improved morale, and a more successful plan of work. They are also more efficient and work in a manner consistent with the agency’s goals and plans. Even the volunteer leadership of a non-profit organization can benefit from coaching when it affects one’s individual career.


Blanchard, K.H. & Hersey, P. (1985). SLII: A situational approach to managing people. Escondido, CA: Blanchard Training and Development.

Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Books.

Goldsmith, M. & Lyon, L. (2006).Coaching for leadership (2nd Ed). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Peters, J. and Wolfred, T. (2001)   CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, San Francisco. See also Teirney, T. (2006) The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit. The Bridgespan Group; and Bell, J, Moyers, R. and T. Wolfred (2006) Daring to Lead 2006: A National study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership.CompassPoint/Meyer Foundation.

Senge (1999). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Currency-Doubleday.

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