Rising Leaders Deserve Support

Future Nonprofit Leaders

By Marissa Lewis and Molly Penn

Take a good look around and you will see lots of new faces in leadership in the nonprofit sector. We have reached a sea change moment that has long been predicted, but seems to be in the process of finally unfolding. Many nonprofit leaders (quite a few of whom are their organization’s founders) are baby boomers, in their sixties. They led their organizations through the 2008 recession. They weathered the storm of COVID-19 and the racial justice movement. They are tired. Their work is done and they recognize it’s time to make room for new leaders. This moment in history demands that we are thoughtful about finding leaders who represent the communities our organizations serve. But (and you had to see this coming, right?) it’s not that easy.  

New Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector

In fact, new leaders have already begun to step in across the sector. Many of them are people of color who have historically been passed over for leadership roles. This is good news, in an exciting time to be working in our sector. It is happening iteratively, organization by organization, so to some it may go unnoticed. But we see it and we applaud it – and it is why PCS is launching supportive services specifically tailored for rising leaders.  

Why Rising Leaders Deserve Support

Leading a nonprofit is incredibly difficult, and extremely stressful. You report to a board of directors, you manage staff, and there is no peer to support you in the organization. Decisions need to be made with a dual bottom-line in mind, profit and mission impact, when those two things are often in conflict. Effective decision-making needs to be driven by consensus rather than command and control, but that just sounds messy and complicated…and slow! 

Sometimes people new to the leadership role have not previously been exposed to certain skills – skills that are key to their success as leaders (think budgeting and financial management, risk assessment, hiring and firing, managing a board, etc.). They are expected to know how to manage all of these dynamics and put their own imprint on the organization. As a result they burn out, fast. Worse, leaders who are people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities, or members of a marginalized group are brought in during an organizational crisis, without supports or assistance and are therefore set up to fail. Or they are hired as a “first,” without help or guidance, with similar results.To protect the health and vibrancy of our sector, these rising leaders need our collective support. Not just emotional support (that too!) but technical support, coaching, and thought partnership. 

Our Rising Tide Program   

PENN Creative Strategy offers a suite of “a la carte” services specifically to support new nonprofit leaders, called Rising Tide. Here are just a few of the services we offer:  

30-60-90 Day Plans

It can be incredibly helpful to start by building out some plans for your 30 days, 60 days and 90 days on the job. In this way, you can stage what you take on when.  These plans address everything from relationship building to financial management to risk management to assessing strengths and weaknesses. They also help you focus on getting to know the field and your organization’s niche. By building these plans intentionally, you can move more quickly through the orientation process and be prepared to step solidly into leadership.

ED/Board Chair Partnership Building

One of the most commonly overlooked ways new Executive Directors can gain tailwinds is through proactively building the partnership you want to have with your board chair. Board chairs are like Congress–they can be your partners, or they can stall the things you want to get done–so it makes sense to be intentional about building a strong partnership from the start.

Staff Development Plans

You likely inherit staff when you assume a new leadership role. Some of them you love, and some you’re not sure of just yet. We can help you sit down with your senior management team, analyze each person’s performance and their potential, and create personalized development plans for each of them. Employees like to know there is a clear path forward for them and development plans help provide that. 

Board Development Plans

We can help you determine the skills you need to recruit and shape the board that will help your organization succeed. We start with a self-assessment process, which leads to a facilitated reflection discussion. We then build a recruitment matrix to help you stay focused in your recruitment efforts. Finally, we can make it easier on you by preparing an onboarding plan for new board members (including an onboarding book with key information in it).  We can also go deeper by analyzing and revamping your committee structure so it aligns with your key priorities. 

Environmental Scan

Want to quickly get up to speed on your field? We can help you research the key players, the sources of power and influence, the business model considerations, and the basic needs in the community you serve.  We take a “social capital” approach to this process, taking stock of what other resources exist for those you serve within your community, whether those are other mission similar CBOs, different mission CBOs, elected officials, and advocacy coalitions.

Community Information Sources

Is your approach to leadership grounded in community embeddedness?  We can help you ascertain the sources of information and trust in your organization’s community.  We can run focus groups with community members to ask them where they get their information. In our experience, traditional sources of wisdom tend to be houses of worship, daycares, neighborhood associations, soup kitchens, and other informal networks where folks feel a sense of trust. We can map these for you to inform your community relationship building.

Decision Making Criteria

Given the complexities of consensus and transparency around decision-making, we find that building a set of decision-making criteria, with input and buy-in from staff and board, positions leaders to make decisions quickly while being informed by the perspectives of their team. We can build a decision matrix that will point you towards certain decisions. Whether you use it as the final decision, or as fodder for further discussion, the matrix helps to narrow the field of choices you face.

Risk Assessment

We often hear that what keeps EDs up at night is this notion of risk–around specific situations or just in general. We can help you understand the risks inherent in your organization so your eyes are open, and develop risk mitigation strategies that help you sleep at night. 

Mission Statement Review

We can facilitate an agency-wide mission statement review (and redo, if called for). We recommend checking in on your mission by putting it in the context of need, existing services provided by others, and your organization’s strengths and special sauce. We facilitate energizing conversations with your staff, constituents and board members to determine the concepts that are essential to describing your organization’s work and unique approach.  

Theory of Change

We can facilitate the development of a Theory of Change for your organization. This framework helps align all stakeholders around a shared vision of impact, the outcomes you are seeking to produce for those you serve (both short-term and long-term), and the activities you engage in to produce those outcomes (programs, services, etc.). A Theory of Change positions your organization to better understand and articulate the change you are making in the world (with data to back it up!). 


If you’re not sure what you need but you just feel a general need for support, coaching may be your best bet! We schedule a weekly call with you to hear what is on your mind, act as a thought partner to you, and provide you with any tools we have that can help support your success in those areas. Sometimes what you need most is to spill some tea, get some support, and then think productively about how to move forward.

Let us know how we can support your leadership. We want you to succeed–and we want to ensure you can balance this demanding and immensely rewarding job with rest and self-care. We’d be happy to discuss any of these Rising Tide options with you.

Drop in for Office Hours and talk with our experts!

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