Case Stories

Nonprofit Co-Leadership: Sharing the Top Job

| Updated July 16, 2018

When two directors are better than one.

Originally Published: April 2017

Taking on responsibility for leading a nonprofit isn't easy. But what if you could share the burden?

At Croatia's Association for Civil Society Development, or SMART, which provides training and capacity building to other nonprofits, co-directors Zvijezdana Schulz Vugrin and Slađana Novota have been sharing the top job full-time for 18 years. Each has legal authority as a director, sharing full responsibility for all tasks. Both also deliver training themselves, alongside management duties.

The logical option

The initial choice to share leadership wasn't a conscious decision. Rather, it came about when Vugrin, Novota and Gordona Forčić (who was also co-director until she passed away in 2015) met on a six-month training for trainers course in 1999.

At the end of the course, the three women were ready to create a capacity building organization, and shared leadership seemed the natural option. "We were all in the same position and already doing everything together," says Novota. "This horizontal structure seemed the most logical start."

"The three of us connected," adds Vugrin. "We shared the same vision, values, and had similar skills and knowledge. But none of us saw ourselves as the boss — no one thought they were better than the others." That was the case even though Novota then had much less experience than the other two, who simply mentored their junior colleague while trusting her as an equal.

Good for the individual, good for the nonprofit

On a day-to-day level, sharing the job means a co-director can sometimes pass on less appealing tasks (for Novota, that's TV interviews or detailed financial planning) to one's teammate. More importantly, though, it's a valuable way to counter the loneliness that many nonprofit leaders face. Novota says the responsibility of being a director means she probably wouldn't do the job alone.

"The nonprofit sector can be very stressful," agrees Vugrin. "You're multitasking all the time. It's nice to have staff you can trust, but also nice to have a co-leader — someone you can check ideas and thoughts with." That's particularly valuable when you need to make difficult decisions, she adds.

Sharing the job has practical benefits for the organization, too, not least greater stability and continuity through periods of vacation, illness or maternity leave (and for the individual, the chance to take time off without worrying about what's happening at the office). With two directors, the organization also benefits from different competences and leadership styles. Their collaborative way of working with each other also extends to how they work with the wider team, with staff being involved or consulted on many decisions. It's a way of working that seems to go down well: SMART's six other full-time staff have been with the organization for an average of 10 to 12 years.

Making it work

What are some principles for making co-leadership work?

Planning and communication

Vugrin and Novota communicate all the time — usually by phone or email, since they're based in different cities, 160 kilometers apart. Updating one another on everything does take more time, but they see that as time well spent. Forward planning is also vital. "We are planning freaks," says Vugrin. The team meets in person for a day and a half every three months to go through all projects and internal organizational matters.

Shared values and vision

Effective co-leaders don't need to be best friends — Vugrin and Novota don't socialize outside of work — but they do need to share the same ethics, values and vision for the organization. "If you're on the same page on that, everything else falls into place," says Novota. Questions of communication or how you'll make decisions together are then just practical matters that can be worked out along the way.

Rethinking hierarchy

SMART's unusual leadership structure came naturally as the organization was being created. For those already leading a nonprofit, trying to find the right person to invite as a co-leader would "probably be much harder," believes Novota.

Co-leadership demands a rethinking of the usual hierarchy found in organizations.

"It's important that people are aware that authority isn't something you get with a place in a hierarchy," says Vugrin. "It's something you get by developing and building relationships with others. If you have that in mind, it's much easier to run an organization with shared leadership."

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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Writer/editor focusing on all things nonprofit and social enterprise. Youth media trainer. Storyteller through words and pictures.