New Research Shows Nonprofit Executive Teams Underperform

10/18/2018 |


Bridgespan study finds less than 20 percent of nonprofit executive team members strongly believe their teams are focused on the right work 

New Research Shows Nonprofit Executive Teams Underperform

Bridgespan study finds less than 20 percent of nonprofit executive team members strongly believe their teams are focused on the right work 

BOSTON, October 18, 2018 Most nonprofit executive teams underperform when it comes to delivering on their organization’s goals, according a new report from The Bridgespan Group, Increasing Nonprofit Executive Team Effectiveness. The report, published today by Stanford Social Innovation Review (, outlines five steps nonprofit leadership teams can take to achieve greater success.    
“Executive teams play a critical role in shaping organization-wide decisions and share responsibility for the organization’s results with the CEO,” said Libbie Landles-Cobb, a Bridgespan partner and coauthor of the paper. “Yet we’ve seen surprisingly little research into how effective nonprofit executive teams are today, and what can be done to increase their effectiveness. Our study attempts to address this gap.”  

Bridgespan’s analysis draws on a diagnostic survey with more than 360 nonprofit executive team respondents; over five dozen interviews with nonprofit CEOs, coaches and consultants; and Bridgespan’s nearly 20 years of experience working with nonprofits. 

“Bridgespan’s research reveals that most nonprofits falter when it comes to executive team effectiveness, characterized by capable CEO leadership, clarity on the team’s role, and productive group interactions,” said Henry Barmeier, a Bridgespan manager and coauthor of the report.

From their research, Bridgespan distilled a sequence of five steps, framed as questions that have helped most executive teams increase their overall effectiveness.

 Is the CEO effectively managing the executive team? 
Only 25 percent of survey respondents strongly agreed that their CEO effectively addresses executive team dynamics and performance challenges. The CEOs who were most successful in effectively managing their executive teams set expectations and defined the team’s work, steered meeting agendas, and supported team members to grow while holding them accountable for performance.
 Is the executive team focused on the most important work? 
Less than 20 percent of survey respondents strongly agreed that their team focuses on the right work. Getting clear about the most important things for the team to focus on is critical in determining who should participate, how the team should conduct its business, and how to avoid wasting the team’s time. 
 Does executive team composition support its ability to do the work? 
Almost a third of survey respondents reported having eight or more members, the upper limit of what research has found to be an ideal team size to have effective strategic discussions and team cohesion. CEOs who rated their teams as highly effective structured them in a way that kept the teams at a manageable size, while ensuring the teams were comprised of people with the necessary perspectives, competencies, and diversity. 
 Do meeting and communication processes support superior decisions and execution? 
Only 17 percent of survey respondents strongly agreed that they have effective meetings, and only 11 percent said they communicate well with the rest of the organization. Executive teams work on a variety of different types of issues, ranging from addressing immediate concerns to long-range strategic planning. This requires effective planning, different types of meetings for different topics, and effective meetings to ensure productive discussions.
• Does the team’s dynamic foster the right conversations and results? 
Thirty-six percent of survey respondents strongly agreed that their executive team members work well together. However, Bridgespan’s interviews with coaches and consultants suggested that many teams underinvest in developing a productive working dynamic, expecting this to happen without intentional effort.
“Only one in four of our survey respondents rated their executive team highly effective,” said Kirk Kramer, head of Bridgespan’s leadership practice and coauthor of the paper. “If your team is among the other 75 percent, imagine the productivity boost for your organization, and you personally, if the team advanced from good to great.” 

About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group ( is a global nonprofit organization that collaborates with mission-driven organizations, philanthropists and investors to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. With offices in Boston, Mumbai, New York, and San Francisco, Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy and nonprofit advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.
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