Nonprofit Chief of Staff: Thought Partner, Gap-Filler & Strategic Doer

Two women, representing a nonprofit leader and a chief of staff, sit side-by-side looking at a computer.

Written by Megan Garvey

June 25, 2024

Nonprofit leaders are often charismatic and inspiring visionaries with a strong personal connection to the cause they are championing. Their passion for their work and their need to maximize a limited budget can lead them to put in long hours and entangle themselves in every aspect of the organization’s operations. While this approach can help a new nonprofit get off the ground, it can become a barrier to growth if the leader is unable to extract themselves from the day-to-day to focus on the bigger picture. 

That’s where a chief of staff (CoS) can be an especially pivotal role for nonprofits, helping nonprofit leaders maximize their impact by focusing on their zone of genius. 

What Does a Chief of Staff Do in a Nonprofit

A chief of staff is a leader’s right hand, providing thought partnership, project management support, and serving as an organizational integrator who connects work streams that would otherwise remain siloed. In a nonprofit, they are tasked with a variety of responsibilities that all share the same end goal: to make the leader and the organization more effective. The typical duties of a chief of staff include project management, facilitating decision-making, supporting human resources, monitoring team culture, onboarding new team members, tracking goals and metrics, and some financial management. The role requires outstanding communication skills, problem-solving skills, and interpersonal skills. 

At vChief, we believe that having the support of a chief of staff is the secret to effective leadership in any sector. But in a nonprofit, a chief of staff can be especially impactful because of their ability to wear many hats in order to fill gaps on a lean executive team. 

A Chief of Staff is the Perfect Gap-Filler for a Nonprofit

The chief of staff position is highly adaptable to the needs of both the leader and the organization. Top candidates for a CoS position have often held a wide variety of senior leadership positions throughout their career. They’re quick learners, self-starters, and excellent problem solvers — just like nonprofit executives, which means hiring a CoS is a little like having a clone at work, but better. Instead of duplicating your skills, you get someone whose abilities complement your strengths.

Growing nonprofits can’t always hire a new full-time executive team member as soon as the need arises for additional support. It can take years before they have the funding to add a full-time chief operating officer (COO), chief development officer (CDO), or chief financial officer (CFO). But a chief of staff is a strong generalist who can cover many of the most important functions of those leadership roles until the organization grows large enough to hire someone full time in each area. 

The ROI of a Nonprofit Chief of Staff 

While the chief of staff role is well-known in some nonprofit sectors, such as education and political advocacy, leaders who aren’t familiar with the impact of the role may struggle to justify the expense of adding another person to the office of the CEO. 

Here are five key outcomes that we consistently see from nonprofit organizations that hire a chief of staff, leading to a significant return on the investment of adding this key support member to the executive team. 

Scale Up Your Impact 

From talent management, to fundraising strategies, to compliance — growing nonprofits face many challenges that can trip up an inexperienced leader. If you’ve never scaled up a nonprofit or a startup before, you run the risk of making a lot of mistakes and wasting funding on ineffective and inefficient strategies. 

The chief of staff role typically requires a minimum of a decade of professional experience, and experience in a C-level strategic role is preferred. Many of the people in our pool of fractional executives have 12 to 15 years of experience in nonprofits, including experience serving as an executive director, founder, or member of the executive team. Often, they have helped nonprofits grow from spinning off from a fiscal sponsor to becoming sustainable organizations with dozens of full-time staff. They know what worked in that process and the painful things that shouldn’t be repeated. 

Serving as an experienced thought partner to the entire executive team, a chief of staff can help nonprofits gain traction faster and maximize their impact. 

Prevent Executive Burnout

Executive burnout is a pervasive problem within the nonprofit sector. In a 2023 report from the National Council of Nonprofits, more than 50 percent of organizations surveyed said employee stress and burnout were major factors affecting their ability to recruit and retain employees. 

The loss of an executive director due to burnout can lead to a loss of direction, momentum, and funding for a nonprofit — or worse, cause the organization to shut down completely.

In their role as the leader’s right hand, a chief of staff can help prevent executive burnout by taking everyday tasks off the executive’s plate that sap their emotional and mental energy. 

Some key tasks a CoS can take off a nonprofit executive’s plate include:

  • Managing the executive assistant(s) by overseeing hiring process, onboarding, and professional development
  • Providing communications support: summarizing important emails and identifying responses needed, writing speeches, and handling meeting prep and follow-up
  • Acting as a resource for team members: answering questions and providing strategic counsel and day-to-day management to prevent bottlenecks
  • Handling board communications and drafting board meeting presentations

Delegating tasks such as these to a chief of staff can typically free up at least 10 hours per week in an executive’s schedule, giving them more time to focus on activities that require their personal touch: building coalitions with other nonprofits and advocates, raising awareness of the organization and its mission through speaking engagements, and setting the vision for the organization. 

A chief of staff can also help a leader more effectively delegate projects or responsibilities to other team members. They can provide an outside perspective to help the leader see which tasks merit their energy, and they can provide critical support to the team members who get assigned action items to make sure they accomplish the tasks without constantly coming back to the leader for guidance. 

Improve Performance Management

Nonprofits face a lot of public scrutiny over their performance. Funders want to see proof that the organization is being a good steward of its resources and is continuously improving its performance. An organization that doesn’t meet its established goals runs the risk of losing its funding. 

But too often, nonprofit leaders struggle to find the time for projects like setting strategic goals, identifying key performance indicators, and tracking and evaluating progress toward those goals. Without having a formal system in place to track performance improvements over time, it can be hard to quantify the organization’s impact and evolution over time.

A chief of staff plays two roles that can help with performance management. First, a chief of staff can handle the logistics and follow-up associated with strategic planning, which can be a months-long process and is typically outside the scope of an executive assistant’s job description and skills. Without the support of a CoS, the leader might spend all of their effort coordinating the logistics of the planning retreat, instead of evaluating the health of the organization, the need within the community they serve, the political environment, etc. — all of the things they need to be thinking about going into a strategic planning session. 

Second, a chief of staff can help with tracking and monitoring the key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics that are established during a strategic planning session and can work to hold other members of the organization accountable to those KPIs. Additionally, in their role as an integrator, they work to connect disparate work streams to make sure everyone’s work is aligned toward the same goals and to prevent bottlenecks and missed opportunities that come when departments are too siloed. 

As a testament to the need among many nonprofits for external assistance with performance management, we’ve noticed a growing number of foundations hiring chiefs of staff to support grantees with these tasks. 

Expand Your Partnerships and Visibility

One of the most important roles for a nonprofit leader is being the face of the organization in public. Raising the profile of the organization and its mission can help increase the donor base, open doors to new collaborations, and increase awareness of the services provided among the target population. 

Again, this is a key role that can often get neglected when a leader is too bogged down in the day-to-day running of the nonprofit. A chief of staff can help carve out time on a leader’s calendar to attend meetings with stakeholders, develop new partnerships, and build coalitions. They do this by helping the leader delegate tasks to others and by serving as a gatekeeper, limiting access to the leader in order to protect their focus.  

Additionally, the chief of staff can help with many of the behind-the-scenes tasks of these external relations efforts, such as finding conferences, identifying potential partners, drafting outreach emails, and preparing presentations and data for the leader to share during these meetings.  

Improve Your Relationship with Your Board

Ideally, a nonprofit’s board is a source of support to the leader and an asset for the organization as a whole. But often, board relations are a stressful part of an executive director’s job. Organizing meetings, gathering data, and preparing presentations can zap an executive director’s energy, and can make them feel like board meetings are a chore, rather than an opportunity to get a fresh perspective on challenges and find creative solutions to problems. 

By helping with the logistics and communication tasks related to board meetings, a chief of staff can make the leader’s relationship with the board more productive. A chief of staff can do things like manage the cadence of board meetings, prepare and distribute the agenda, and prepare slide decks for the leader. Additionally, they can play the role of project manager for any special projects or action items that arise during the board meeting, holding the board accountable to following up on their commitments and facilitating communication between board members and the rest of the internal team. 

How a Chief of Staff’s Support for a Nonprofit Executive Differs from an Executive Assistant

The roles of chief of staff and executive assistant are complementary roles that provide different kinds of support to a leader. In a nonprofit, an executive assistant will likely spend most of their time managing appointments, making travel arrangements, looking up information, and running short errands for the leader. 

A nonprofit chief of staff, on the other hand, provides much more strategic support. They handle tasks that require more leadership and technical expertise than an executive assistant can provide, such as communicating with the board, answering strategy-related questions from other members of the senior leadership team, and managing organization-wide projects or initiatives

How Nonprofits Can Leverage the Support of a Chief of Staff by Hiring a Fractional Executive

Even if they’re convinced of the need for the kind of support a chief of staff provides, a small nonprofit with a lean budget may not have the funding to hire a full-time chief of staff as soon as they learn about the role. 

In those situations, hiring a fractional chief of staff can be a low-risk way to make sure the role will deliver a positive ROI. 

More nonprofits are embracing the remote fractional executive staffing trend because of its flexibility and cost-effectiveness. A fractional executive is someone with high-level expertise who joins your team as a part-time staff member to provide hands-on leadership and execution of a specific scope of work. Most fractional staffing firms provide flexible month-to-month contracts that allow you to freely increase or decrease your executive’s hours and cancel with only 30 days’ notice. With contract options starting at as few as 20 hours a month, it’s much more cost-effective than hiring a full-time executive because you don’t have to pay for benefits, executive search costs, or physical office space. 

Scale Up Your Impact with a Fractional Chief of Staff

With so many complex challenges in our world, we need effective nonprofits more than ever. That’s why I hope to see more nonprofits embrace the role of chief of staff to help them scale up their impact and achieve sustainability as an organization. 

At vChief, our chief of staff talent pool includes candidates who have served in C-level strategy positions at organizations like Teach for America, the Obama Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. They are well-equipped to support the following nonprofit sectors

  • Education
  • Social impact
  • Advocacy 
  • Youth development
  • Women’s health
  • Nonprofit housing 
  • Workforce development

With a fractional chief of staff, you can get the support you need even on a lean budget. Schedule a free needs assessment today to learn more about the impact this role could have on your entire organization.

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