How Nonprofit Leaders Can Delegate Successfully

by Joan Garry

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You’ve heard it. Many times. 

I find myself often wondering how helpful supervisors are when approached with this common dinnerware proclamation.

Recently, an executive director told me that in a recent check-in meeting, she heaped praise on a direct report who then promptly burst into tears. Nope – not tears of joy. Not gratitude.

Tears of overwhelm.

Some executive directors offer a diagnostic strategy that fails fabulously. One of my clients wisely suggested to a direct report: “Go through all your projects and prioritize them. 1 = urgent and 5 = could wait and then let’s review the list together.”  

They met and my client looked at the list. Every project was marked with a 1. Ruh roh. Clearly, prioritizing is not a strength here.

Then, some executive directors really are no help at all. One client told me: “I do raise the issue with my executive director, not to complain, but to seek her advice. I don’t know why I bother. She thinks that she is very helpful but really isn’t at all. I walk away and think to myself: I think she just told me to get a bigger plate.”

It is time to look in the mirror. 

Take a close look and I hope you see a manager whose job it is to set your team members up for success, to ensure their workload is manageable, to provide them with the guidance they need to be successful, to enhance their skills, and provide them with the opportunity to own a project. 

Ownership creates a powerful thing called autonomy.

Ideally, you would begin with a new staff member or volunteer and an empty plate. But today, we’ll assume we are well past that point.


I have generally found 10 causes of having too much on your plate as a nonprofit leader. To make this easier to follow, let’s assume that I, Joan, am the boss (it is my blog after all) and Deja is my direct report. Deja has come to me with an overflowing plate and has a staff member named Miguel.

Now let’s name the 10 causes of an overstuffed plate and then consider actionable advice:

  1. Joan as a boss models a plate that looks like she just saddled up to an all-you-can-eat buffet. (The real Joan is going to come back to it a bit later.)
  2. Joan’s direct report, Deja, is not able to distinguish between the urgent and the important. 
  3. Deja has control issues and feels it is better/easier to do it herself. 
  4. Deja wants to delegate but believes Miguel has performance issues and can’t be trusted to complete this project. 
  5. Deja wants to delegate but needs coaching on how to set up all parties for success. 
  6. Deja is doing work that is not the best and highest use of the value that she brings. 
  7. Deja is taking forever to get anything done; she is known to overthink.
  8. Deja is covering for a colleague in another department who is known to drop balls.
  9. Deja should have set better boundaries and said no before accepting new work but did not feel that she could. 
  10. Deja feels like this is a project Joan should be doing herself.


The first step is to assess the items on the plate together and do your best to align to the following principles:

Delegate Like A Boss. Are there any items on the plate that could be done by someone at 25% of what your staffer is paid? If there was part- or full-time admin support, what would come off the plate? Be adamant. If Deja’s time is worth $200/hour, why would you want them doing work you could pay someone $25-$50/hour? Let’s get that off the plate.

Define Norms Together. Look at urgent vs. important. Agree together on a scale of 1 to 5. Next, look at the timeline for each and alter based on the assessment. Change due dates and ease the anxiety.

Empower The NO. Is the project or task something Deja should have said “no” to and didn’t because it was Joan who asked (because don’t mess with Joan!)? Or is it because Deja is an ambitious high performer?

Establish Clear Expectations. Here we need to distinguish between control issues and a lack of clarity about how to delegate. The best strategy is to start talking about projects and tasks that are delegated. If there are none, you have a control issue. But let’s say there are. Ask Deja to talk through one project as an example and go slowly through the delegation process to a member of their team.  


As a nonprofit leader, effective delegation should look something like this:

  1. Organize a meeting to define the scope of the project and what success looks like. Be very clear about what the outcome(s) should look like. Decide who the project should be delegated to and the messaging (ex: “We really want you to own this project – your skills are perfect for this!”)
  2. Identify the due date and then be sure that Miguel has buy-in and does not believe that the due date is a recipe for failure. 
  3. Be sure that the project is on your weekly or biweekly 1:1 agenda with Deja. Discuss the following:
    • How is Miguel doing with Project X?
    • Is Deja asking for check-ins to address questions or updates?
    • Can Joan offer an opportunity to be a thought partner on challenges with either Deja or Deja and Miguel?
    • If there is a deadline issue, are you helping assess what priorities might shift?
  4. Can you agree on a deadline that allows you to review the final deliverable and offer feedback so that adjustments can be made? (This will continue to give both Deja and Miguel a sense of ownership rather than the feeling of handing in a paper to be graded.)
  5. A debrief with all parties afterward with constructive feedback so that everyone learns and the process becomes stronger and smoother next time.


Control issues will rise to the top. Joan needs to push back on Deja when she says that Miguel can’t handle the project or is too new or “too something” else. This has to be called out. Don’t go asking Joan for help because you have too much on your plate if you are not willing to take some things off. 

Performance issues will also surface. How is Deja navigating multi-tasking, conflicting deadlines, and perhaps performance issues in her own area? Clear case studies like this can be documented for performance reviews.

Do you have a “blamer” on your hands? Does Deja have an attitude problem? If so, that should be documented. You want strong team players who own responsibility for their work. 

Is Deja ‘covering’ for Miguel? Do we have a problem with Miguel and Deja is not ready or willing or able to hold Miguel accountable?

Is the exercise just too overwhelming? Do you have burnout on your hands? 


So there is, as with many of my blog posts, a moral. And there is also an elephant in the middle of the room.

When someone approaches you to say there’s too much on their plate, stop, step away from the computer, and diagnose. Use this post if it is helpful but have an authentic conversation about the why. You are going to learn many things about your direct reports, how they prioritize (if they do), and how they hold their own folks accountable. And if you can take a stance of curiosity and coach them through all of this, there will be no need for larger dinnerware.


You as the executive director have zero/zilch/no credibility coaching a direct report on their dinnerware challenge if you have one yourself. Full stop.

So as a gift to yourself, try this exercise at home, be honest, and commit to necessary changes. 

You will then come to your conversation with team members with a helluva lot more vulnerability, authenticity, and credibility – which are the 3 key attributes of excellent leadership. 

It is worth trying, right?