Developing Nonprofit Leaders with Executive Coaching

By Alfonso Perillo

Alfonso Perillo
Nonprofit leaders must perform at a consistently high level as they are called upon to manage and motivate their staff and their boards, implement the organization’s strategic plan, and serve as ambassadors of their organizations.

The skills leaders need to successfully perform these roles demands that they sharpen their “soft skills” by increasing their emotional intelligence and self awareness.

In other words, the leader is challenged with changing the way they use themselves to positively impact others. This often requires changing old habits and rethinking long-held beliefs, and an executive coach can help.

When a Nonprofit Should Consider Hiring a Coach

Coaches can be hired for a variety of reasons, but if the following circumstances apply, it may make sense to consider coaching:

  1. If the leader’s development challenge is about their “soft” skills and not a knowledge or technical skills deficit, then executive coaching is appropriate.

  2. The agency is committed to the leader. Coaching can be a powerful change agent when it is viewed by all parties as a positive development. In other words, the leader is seen as having the requisite skills to lead the organization, but needs support to develop one or two key areas.

  3. The leader is committed to the coaching process. In order for coaching to be most effective, the leader needs to be motivated. It is important for those who are hiring a coach to understand the extent to which the leader is motivated to engage in the coaching process. Ambivalence about entering into coaching is understandable. A coach can work with the natural impulse to resist the change process, but coaching will be far more effective if the leader truly wants to be coached.
Considerations When Hiring a Coach

Before an agency decides to hire an executive coach, it should consider the following:

Cost. Executive coaching is expensive. An engagement that spans six to nine months and includes the use of individual and assessment tools can easily cost thousands of dollars. Offering executive coaching to agency leaders may simply be cost prohibitive to smaller nonprofits. However, organizations should consider the long-term costs of failing to offer this type of service, e.g., what if good people who could benefit from coaching decide to leave?

Confidentiality. An executive coach may share themes and the leader’s development plan with the board, senior management, and/or human resources, but the coach will insist that the specifics of coaching sessions remain confidential. The only way a leader will feel comfortable speaking about deep-seated and possibly uncomfortable issues is if the coach can guarantee confidentiality. Nevertheless, the nonprofit will be making a substantial investment with coaching, and it will need to work with the coach and coachee to monitor the extent to which progress is being made.

Contact for the coach. Before coaching begins it is important to establish up front who the coach “reports” to. Typically, the coach reports to the human resources director, but if the organization does not have an HR director, then the board president or chair can be the contact.

Explaining the reasons for coaching. How an organization explains that the leader is receiving coaching is important in achieving a positive outcome. Others will view coaching as a positive and favorable development if it is explained in an honest and straightforward manner.

Interview at least three coaches. It will be important for the leader to be involved in the interview process. This is called the “chemistry check”, and the purpose is to determine whether there is a good fit between the coach and coachee.

Determine certifications. Although there is no one body that certifies coaches, many coaches are certified by the International Coaching Federation (or ICF). Note, however, that lack of ICF certification should not dissuade you from considering a coach; excellent coaches may not be ICF certified.

Determine which assessment tools the coach will use. Standardized assessment instruments (like Myer’s Briggs, DISC, 16PF, etc.) are used by just about every coach. Therefore, it will be important to understand the assessment methodology that the coach plans to employ and how the results will inform the creation of the development plan and the nature of the coaching engagement.

Alfonso Perillo is a partner at Edelstein & Company LLP, leading the nonprofit audit and tax department. He is a certified public accountant, social worker, and executive coach. Call him at 617-478-3447 or email to

September 2012