Have you ever thought of hiring a coach to work with you as the leader of your nonprofit? Or have you, as a board member, ever thought that your nonprofit might be wise to hire a coach for its executive director? Stories abound describing how coaching has helped leaders grow in ways no other resource could provide.

Every leader has his or her particular strengths. A good coach can help you make those strengths even stronger. In fact, you can strengthen your strong points so much that no one even notices you have weaknesses. Of course, the coach will also help you identify areas for improvement. A coach can tailor the work to fit your particular organizational challenges and unmet goals.

Ultimately, working with a good coach can improve organizational communication, enhance your relationship with the board, boost your leadership skills and propel your organization to a level of high performance.

Research Indicates the Benefits of Coaching

In 2011, Compasspoint released a report titled “Daring to Lead” that interviewed more than 3,000 nonprofit executives. Expanding the use of executive coaches was their top recommendation for supporting their development as leaders. Respondents in the study overwhelming cited coaching as one of the most effective developmental resources.


The report also showed that 75 percent of nonprofit executives will leave their positions within five years. Sixty percent will leave for reasons that include a difficult executive/board relationship, lack of a trusted peer network, burnout or a need for more sophisticated leadership skills. The reality is that nonprofit executive directors have an increasingly challenging job often resulting in a sense of isolation, an organization’s failure to achieve strategic goals, frustration on the part of the board and executive, and the high cost of a search for a new executive.

Why Isn’t Coaching More Widespread?

So why do so few nonprofit leaders have a coach? For many, the concept of coaching is a mystery. How does it work? How do you find a good one? Do you really need one? How much does it cost?

Other nonprofit leaders would love to have an executive coach, but this type of professional development isn’t a line item on their budget. Most for-profit businesses understand the power of coaching and plan for the expenses, knowing it will improve the company’s performance. But nonprofits are quick to shave this type of expense when they cut expenses for a balanced budget.

What Is Coaching and When Do You Need It?

The Bridgespan Group tells us that a coach is someone who facilitates your professional growth so that you become a more effective leader. An experienced coach has deep knowledge of human behavior, leadership, and your particular sector or field, in this case, familiarity with nonprofit organizations. In some cases the coach has been an executive and brings that insight to bear. A coach is not a friend or a mentor or a therapist. Coaching is a formal arrangement with only professional objectives in mind.

The process of coaching is a series of regular meetings where you have the opportunity to privately raise challenging dilemmas, gain insight through meaningful discussions, and rehearse and refine new behaviors. Two or three goals are determined at the beginning and it is expected that, within several months, you will receive positive feedback for improved leadership actions. As much as possible, the coach draws out your best thinking and supports your efforts to try new things. When you get stuck or limited in your thinking, the coach will offer additional perspectives and solutions.

You will want to engage a professional coach whenever you want to grow as a leader. Perhaps you have stalled in your trajectory; maybe you have been doing well but see untapped potential to unleash; or possibly organizational demands require new skills. Coaching also is a good way to digest feedback and to enact a professional growth plan. At its most powerful, coaching is done when you’re doing a good job but would be even more effective with some additional growth as a leader.

How Does Coaching Work?

Coaching can be a unique opportunity to meet regularly with someone whose only purpose is to help you be wildly successful. The coach brings insights, new ideas, recommendations and stories about other leaders who have traveled the same path. What you need to bring to the conversation is your willingness to learn and experiment with new behaviors. Describe tough issues that cause you to stumble and strengths that work well. You need to go beyond venting about a frustrating situation and be open to new perspectives and new actions in an effort to best develop yourself and to add value to your organization.

In other words, you need to challenge yourself to share your vulnerabilities and try some new behaviors that will feel awkward at first. If you are earnest in your efforts you will experience moments of greater effectiveness that will motivate you to keep learning. Once you see how a few changes can make a big difference you will be hooked. That’s when the fun and accelerated learning kicks in.

Guidelines for Selecting a Coach

» Get recommendations from colleagues who have had success with a coach. Get several referrals and set up interviews with each one. It’s like finding a doctor; you can find one on Google, but it’s better to hear about someone’s experiences with a practitioner.

» During the interview, ask probing questions. What is your measure of success? What can I expect during our conversations? Tell me how you helped someone else. What if this doesn’t work? Are you going to talk with my board chair? How would you address my specific issue?

» Connecting with a coach is critical but not especially scientific. Does this person listen? Do you believe she or he can help with your particular situation? Can you see yourself trusting this person? Will you be comfortable exposing your vulnerabilities? Ultimately the decision is more intuitive. Do you click with this person? Is the chemistry right for you?

» Explore knowledge and logistics. Most coaches spend their time in for-profit organizations. Be sure that your coach is well versed in the nuances of the nonprofit world. Inquire about scheduling flexibility because things can change on a dime in your routine. Ask about phone, email and Skype access. Discuss fees and negotiate, if necessary. Get clarification on frequency of meetings and contract terms. Common practice for many coaches is to meet once or twice a month for 1½ to two hours over the course of six to nine months. Most coaches will have standard practices in all these areas but are open to fit your needs.

Source: The Bridspan Group

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or cynder@nonprofitkinect.org. The opinions expressed are her own.

Cynder Sinclair

Cynder Sinclair, Noozhawk Columnist

— Dr. Cynder Sinclair is a consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She has been successfully leading nonprofits for 30 years and holds a doctorate in organizational management. To read her blog, click here. To read her previous articles, click here. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137 or cynder@nonprofitkinect.org. The opinions expressed are her own.