Why Empathy is the Key to Outstanding Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations

by Beth Kanter and Joan Garry

Beth Kanter and I explain why empathetic leadership is one of the most effective ways to avoid burnout at your nonprofit. You can learn more strategies that will keep you and your team from running on fumes: Resource: 7 Ways to Avoid Burnout

Note: This blog post was co-authored by Beth Kanter and Joan Garry.

Over our years as thought leaders in the field of nonprofit leadership and well-being, and as a nonprofit leadership coach, blogger, and founder of an online training and community platform created for leaders of small to mid-sized nonprofits, we’ve spent countless hours considering the unique challenges that nonprofit leaders face. 

Recently, we have been exploring a fascinating topic that is not only  close to our hearts, but very timely due to burnout in the nonprofit sector – empathetic leadership. 

From our previous conversations, we’ve realized that empathy is not just a warm and fuzzy “soft skill,” but an essential leadership skill to ensure that your nonprofit’s work survives and thrives in the future. 

Empathetic leadership, to us, is about seeing through the eyes of others. It’s in the genuine “How are you doing?” We ask our staff and team , aimed at strengthening connections and boosting performance. In simple terms, it’s about being a decent human being, not an ‘asshole,'” as Joan so eloquently puts it! (You’re laughing, but we mean it.)

One crucial aspect of empathetic leadership is willingness – a willingness to help employees through their personal issues, recognizing that work and personal lives are becoming more and more intertwined. Of course, we are not suggesting that you become your staff member’s therapist (if they need one your employee should be able to access your organization’s EAP), it is more about understanding that our team members are dynamic individuals, balancing personal hurdles while also fulfilling their professional duties.

And if you show that you really care, it helps with their motivation.The intertwining of work and personal lives has become increasingly evident, especially post-pandemic. Therefore, we need to recognize and respect this dynamic as we lead and support our teams.

Empathy is contagious and influences and shapes a work culture of caring. As leaders, we have a responsibility to model this behavior, demonstrating an authentic interest in our people as humans. Now, you might be wondering, “how do we practice empathy in our leadership styles?”

Practicing Empathetic Leadership in the Nonprofit Workplace

Empathy isn’t always a hardwired skill, but the good news is that with practice we can develop itHere are a few examples of what this looks like in practice in the nonprofit workplace.:

  • Build Real Connections At Work
    Now here’s a fact: Real connections and friendships at work matter because they can help us get stuff done! Empathetic leadership isn’t just about being nice; it’s about forging deep bonds  with our teams. As leaders, we must show compassion when team members face personal losses. We may not fully relate to someone’s specific loss, but we can still act empathetically and provide support.
  • Avoid “Stressification”
    One other thing empathetic leaders should address is what Beth calls “stressification” or inflicting our internalized workaholic tendencies on others . It’s the counterproductive practice of sending after-hour emails or direct messages, causing unnecessary panic, or scheduling meetings during universal time off. We need to steer clear of these practices if we want to prevent employee burnout (and our own burnout) and cultivate wellbeing at work in the process.
  • Provide Stretch Opportunities for Staff Professional Growth
    Don’t treat your staff like robots who should be performing the same mechanical tasks over and over again. You need to provide opportunities for their continuous learning on the job and mentoring. You want to inspire curiosity beyond formal professional development activities.  
  • Model and Celebrate Well-being Practices
    Creating a robust work culture that incorporates well-being is fundamental. Leaders should also model work-life harmony, recognizing that work and life is never balanced.  Leaders need to set an example and hold themselves accountable. Accountability includes getting upwards anonymous feedback from staff. 
  • Incorporate Wellbeing Metrics into Your Performance Reviews
    The good news is some organizations are already taking it a step further. They are embedding mental health support into leaders’ performance reviews, based on anonymous feedback from their teams. Some are even considering tying incentives to well-being objectives. That’s a huge leap in the right direction!
  • Evaluate Empathy Skills: We should also evaluate empathy skills as part of job performance appraisals. These skills include self-awareness, adaptiveness, active listening, coaching with powerful questions, observing signs of burnout, giving and receiving feedback, facilitating inclusive meetings, and engaging in difficult conversations. By evaluating these skills, we can ensure empathetic leadership becomes an essential criterion for success.
  • Use Empathy in 1:1 Check-Ins:   To build a caring work culture, leaders need to ask empathetic questions during regular check-ins. Rather than focusing solely on tasks, we should genuinely inquire about our team members’ well-being. Creating norms and processes that promote psychological safety is critical for a caring work environment.
  • Hiring for Empathy
    Here’s an interesting thought — if Zappos can hire for happiness, why can’t nonprofits hire for empathy? Selecting candidates for their empathetic behavior and cultural fit can significantly boost our ability to build a compassionate and caring workforce. The alignment between an individual’s values and the organization’s mission is essential for success in the nonprofit sector. By hiring for empathy, organizations can ensure their employees truly understand and embrace the importance of empathy in driving social change.

The Road Ahead

As the nonprofit sector navigates evolving challenges, it’s crucial for us, as leaders, to embrace empathetic leadership as a guiding principle. Only then can we truly empower our teams to make a meaningful difference in the world.

Remember this: the future of our organizations isn’t just about the work we do, but also the way we do it. 

So, let’s strive to lead with empathy, compassion, and care.