Why Non-Profits Are Splitting Executive Leadership Roles

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In recent years, many non-profits have opted to replace singular executives with a leadership team. This leadership model has the potential to offer myriad benefits, many of which could apply to other types of organizations.

Learn why some non-profits have decided to split executive leadership roles and discover the advantages and challenges of this model:

Allows Executives to Optimize Skills

An image of a boardroom.

In a traditional leadership model, a single executive generally guides the organization and oversees a wide range of components, such as creative vision, business strategy, fundraising, staff, and day-to-day operation. The executive director must excel in all of these areas and may even serve as a motivator for other staff members.

In contrast, a split leadership model enables both executives to focus on separate well-defined areas. While they typically work together toward unified objectives, a leadership duo often allows the two executives to put their most effective skills into practice for the benefit of the non-profit.

Writing for Non-Profit Quarterly, Ruth McCambridge explains that the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit recently celebrated its 25th year in Detroit by replacing its traditional leadership model with two executives. The performing arts venue realized the benefit of doing so after an analysis of its annual reports indicated that Mosaic had been excelling from a creative perspective but falling short from a budgetary perspective.

In response, the non-profit welcomed the existing director to continue driving the venue’s creative vision alongside a co-director, who would focus on fund development. By joining forces and working together, Mosaic anticipated that the co-executives would be able to capitalize on the venue’s past artistic successes while developing a more effective fundraising strategy. In a sense, Mosaic seized the opportunity to pursue the best of both worlds through co-directors.

While this leadership model appears to be becoming more common in the non-profit performing arts world, it is not new to the education world. As Higher Education Today explains, many universities employ co-deans to manage different yet equally important focus areas, such as research initiatives and teaching policies. Other businesses with similar skill divisions may also benefit from this leadership model.

Reduces Turnover

Handling turnover is a recurring challenge for non-profits in all fields. While an exciting vision and the ability to create change often drive non-profit leaders to head an organization, many work long hours, juggle an extensive range of responsibilities, and ultimately experience high levels of stress. Some non-profit leaders even experience burnout and find that they must leave their executive positions earlier than originally planned.

Alternately, split leadership has the potential to distribute high-level responsibilities between two equally qualified executives, which may lower stress levels and reduce the chances of burnout. As a result, adopting a split leadership model may lower a non-profit organization’s turnover rate, which can offer many benefits. With longer term leadership, an organization may have more success at achieving goals and making notable progress in its mission. A lower turnover rate also tends to lower the organization’s costs, which enables the non-profit to accomplish more on a smaller budget.

Improves Transparency

In organizations with a traditional leadership model, executives may opt to create a culture of transparency, but such open communication and idea sharing may not be a requirement. In a split leadership model, however, co-directors must be transparent with one another in order to ensure that the non-profit organization moves in the desired direction.

As Richard Tollefson of The Giving Institute explains, this need for openness and information sharing has the potential to create a sense of accountability for both co-executives. As a result, the co-directors may be more likely to meet or exceed expectations.

Requires a Shared Vision

When adopting a split leadership model, perhaps the biggest challenge that organizations face is that both co-directors must adhere to a shared vision to make certain that the organization is headed in the right direction. Although they focus their skills in separate areas, ultimately, they must work toward a singular goal for the good of the non-profit organization. This concept may prove challenging for executives who are accustomed to leading and working independently. Constant communication is necessary to ensure that both co-directors have designed initiatives that share the common vision.

In addition, the co-directors must develop strategic plans and produce annual reports as a team. To maximize this shared leadership model, Tollefson explains, the two executives must work in unison to develop and apply key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics to assess progress toward organization-wide goals.

May Demand Unforeseen Resources

Although a lower turnover rate is likely to reduce costs for an organization, non-profits may find that adopting a split leadership model may increase costs in other arenas. Some of these may be relatively easy to anticipate, such as the cost of two executive-level salaries, along with related costs, including benefits and office spaces.

Some costs, however, may be more difficult to predict in advance. These could relate to hiring new staff members, adopting new workflow and management models, and implementing transformational changes. To account for these costs, non-profit organizations should consider assessing potential organizational changes and how to budget for these. They should also complete a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis in advance of making any changes to the existing leadership.

In addition, non-profits should be aware that while a split leadership model may save time and resources in the future, such a change is likely to demand significant staff time and resources at the outset. Throughout the organization, decision-making may also require more time and staff support as co-directors work together to develop and execute strategies. Non-profit leaders will likely benefit from addressing appropriate workflow needs and decision-making strategies as early as possible to increase the chance of a smooth transition to this new leadership model.

Split leadership offers both positive and negative aspects, but for many non-profits and other business types, this model may serve as a smart solution. As you pursue a career in the non-profit world, it’s important to recognize that learning a variety of leadership styles and strategies is key to success as you advance your career. Earning an advanced degree can help expand your understanding and your worldview as you pursue your dream.

Visit the New England College Master of Science in Management – Non-Profit Leadership online to learn how an online master’s in non-profit leadership could enable professionals in this field to lead effectively.


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