How Empathy Empowers Nonprofit Leaders

Discover 10 traits that can make YOU a more empathetic leader

Read Time: 8 minutes 

If you had to identify one new thing you learned last year, what would it be? When asked this question, it took me a bit of thinking to condense 2021 into a single thought. But ultimately, what rises to the top for me is how empathy empowers nonprofit leaders. 

What is empathy?

The words empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but they’re quite different. While sympathy is more about feeling sorry for or pitying another’s misfortune, empathy is all about understanding what they’re feeling.  

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, identifying with and vicariously experiencing the events, thoughts, feelings, and emotions of another.” The Journal of Organizational Behavior adds “and demonstrates that understanding with intention, care, and concern.” 

Both sympathy and empathy empower nonprofit leaders and play a part in driving generosity, but empathy drives relationship! Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, puts it this way: “empathy fuels connection.”

Where does empathy come from?

Jesus is the foremost authority on compassion and empathy, and we are called to be like Him. But is empathy a God-given strength or is it a learned and acquired skill? Science says it’s both.

Studies show that there is an empathy gene that accounts for as much as 10% of our empathy variable. We also have mirror-neurons in our brains that physically facilitate our ability to feel what others are feeling. 

Neuroscientists have identified two kinds of empathy that empower nonprofit leaders both in the workplace and in their fundraising: 

  1. Cognitive empathy speaks to our ability to understand another person’s point of view or feelings based on what they share verbally with us and what we may already know about them. 

Here’s how nonprofit leaders can apply it: Listening to our people provides insights not only into how they feel about what’s going on, but also into potential inefficiencies, failures and weaknesses that we can address and resolve.

  1. Emotional empathy refers to the ability to feel what another person is feeling based on our observations of them as they share with us. 

Here’s how nonprofit leaders can apply it: Tuning in to our perceptions of others can reveal their stress, disappointment, discouragement, tension, dissension, and struggles that affect individual and team performance and retention… things we can solve if we are connected to our teams.

How can nonprofit leaders be more empathetic in the workplace?

Empathy is both critical and transformational when it is exercised in the workplace. The Center for Creative Leadership calls empathy “a vital leadership competency,” and Forbes says empathy drives “business results.” 

As leaders, we have a responsibility to foster and exemplify a culture of empathy among our various stakeholders: our families, our friends, our teams, our staff, our volunteers, our donors, our media friends, our church connections, our community leaders… But how do we begin?

Here are 10 empathetic traits that empower nonprofit leaders in the workplace. Let’s develop these and others together!

  1. Genuine interest in your stakeholders 
  2. Low self-orientation
  3. Approachability
  4. Patience and resilience
  5. Thoughtful/attentive listening skills
  6. Deep personal connections
  7. Credibility 
  8. Reliability
  9. Nurturing a sense of community
  10. Promoting engagement
  11. Encouraging team interdependence and cooperation
  12. Promoting initiative and innovation
  13. Delegation, empowerment and motivation
  14. Praise
  15. Affirmation

Meeting those you manage with empathy is critical to healthy team relationships and outcomes. Oprah Winfrey said it very clearly: “Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” 

How can empathy empower nonprofit leaders to raise more money?

Not only can empathy empower nonprofit leaders to be more effective within their organizations, but also as they appeal to donors for their compassionate support. Empathy releases generosity! 

The key to releasing generosity is presenting a heartfelt need that will motivate an empathic response of compassion. Moreover, empathy releases generosity not only of treasure, but also of time and talent, knowledge, ideas, innovation, influence… The impact of empathy knows no bounds.

As Entrepreneur Magazine says, “Our ability to see the world from the perspective of others is one of the most crucial tools in our business toolbox.” Empathy empowers nonprofit leaders to elevate and draw near to others, and release generosity that changes the world. 

More on fundraising! Click here to read more “Strategic Insights” on our website.  

  • Lolly Colombo, Exec VP Client Services

    Lolly Colombo, Exec Vice President, Client Services

    Lolly has been in the trenches with compassion work on both the program side and the agency side for thirty years serving some of the world’s most beloved charities and faith-based organizations including The Salvation Army, Operation Blessing International, Food for the Hungry, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, CBN, In Touch Ministries, and others.

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