In our most recent nonprofit leadership study, we looked at how different leadership styles affected a nonprofit’s culture of philanthropy. We chose four styles that had a large body of academic research behind them:

  • servant leadership,
  • transformational leadership,
  • charismatic leadership, and
  • transactional leadership.

Servant Leaders Most Consistently Associated with Growing Philanthropy

The researchers defined a culture of philanthropy as one in which both the CEO/Executive Director and others in the organization, like the board and staff, participated in fundraising. In the report, the researchers go into more depth defining each leadership style.

Here, we’ll just hit the high points.

servant leadership

Servant Leadership

Servant leaders showed the strongest link having a solid culture of philanthropy at their nonprofit. The research defines servant leaders as those who tend to measure success in serving those they work with. It may be that this looking out for the needs of others helps them see their role in the organization. Including their role in fundraising.

transformational leadership

Transformational Leadership

The next style most likely to have a strong culture of philanthropy were leaders exhibiting the transformational leadership style. Transformational leaders rally people by centering them around a common mission and a comon vision. This style was found at times to produce a culture where both the CEO/Executive Director and others like the board participate in fundraising.

Why “at times”? When the researchers dug deeper into the data, they made a fascinating discovery. With this leadership style, a successful culture of philanthropy seems to hinge on the leaders own confidence. As the researchers state:

“Where leaders have a high level of confidence in their abilities, an enhanced degree of intellectual stimulation (i.e. encouraging non- traditional thinking and alternative perspectives) has a positive impact on philanthropic culture. Where that confidence is lacking, the effect is negative.”

This finding about confidence is particularly important because only about 1 in 5 nonprofit CEOs surveyed said they had a high level of confidence in their leadership abilities. Only 1 in 5. This indicates that helping these style leaders grow more confident in their role may have a positive impact on fundraising.

charismatic leadership

Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic leadership is defined as a style centering on the personality of the leader. In a nonprofit, this might be seen when a boards say, “We don’t fully understand our CEOs decisions, but she rocks! As far as we’re concerned, she can do whatever she wants because she’s amazing.” In our research, charismatic leaders seemed to do the fundraising themselves. But they struggled getting others to help with fundraising.

transactional leadership

Transactional Leadership

The fourth style of leadership in the study was transactional leadership. This style tends to focus more practically on goals and rewards. Some see this in a leader who has a “Do your work and you get a paycheck” attitude. Interestingly, the researchers weren’t able to tie this style of leadership to a culture of philanthropy. But they did find that those identifying more as a transactional leadership style also were most likely to say their nonprofit was experiencing a shrinking budget.

Since a study like this is more like a “snapshot,” we don’t know if transactional leadership causes less money to be raised or if less money being raised causes a more transactional style of leadership behaviors. But there is a link between transactional leadership and declining revenue.

Leadership Can Be Learned

It’s clear from the study that leadership styles significantly impact nonprofit fundraising. In my sharing these results, leaders seem amazed to realize they can choose to exercise a different style. The good news? Leadership behaviors can be learned.

So if you’re not seeing the fundraising results you want, or are frustrated with doing all the fundraising yourself, take a look at your leadership style. It might just hold keys to turning your culture of philanthropy around.

What’s Your Leadership Style?

The even better news? We have a quick, 5-question assessment to help you identify the leadership style you consider “right” or “natural.”

To find yours, take our free, 2-3 minute leadership style assessment at

Then download a free copy of “The Wake Up Call,” to see how your style correlates with fundraising. Get it at:

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