Shark, Weak? New Study Argues Nonprofit Execs Should Be Cuddly

Using facial appearance as a key signifier, a new University of Toronto study suggests nonprofit execs need a soft-edged approach to succeed—pretty much the opposite of the "shark" characterization of traditional for-profit business executives.

If your nonprofit’s executive director has a Shark Tank-style demeanor, you might be doing it wrong.

That’s according to new research released by the University of Toronto last week. In one study undertaken by university researchers, participants viewed photos of the faces of nonprofit chief executives and rated them on a number of characteristics—how likable they seemed, how trustworthy they looked, how dominating they appeared to be, and how mature they seemed.

The researchers then compared the data gleaned from the 169 participants to the nonprofit executives’ track records and found that nonprofit executives seen as more powerful tended to raise less money than their more cuddly counterparts. This result is pretty much the opposite of what is common in the for-profit business world, said Daniel Re, a postdoctoral fellow who worked on the study, titled “Predicting Firm Success From the Facial Appearance of Chief Executive Officers of Non-Profit Organizations.”

“The results were actually much more dramatic than I would have thought,” Re said in a news release. “Previous studies have shown that CEOs who appear dominant seem to do well when it comes to generating wealth. But for NPOs, we found the opposite.”

The researchers also did a similar analysis of for-profit CEOs and found that, overall, those in it for the profits tend to be closer to sharks than cuddly critters.

The report sounds unusual, but it may offer some important lessons, argues Nonproft Quarterly. The magazine highlights a 2008 column written for the magazine by Jim Collins, who claims that the approach needed by nonprofit executives is less “executive” leadership and more “legislative” leadership, with the latter requiring skills “like persuasiveness, encouraging participation, sharing credit, teaming, and organizational sensitivity.”

What do you think? Are you more soft and cuddly than hard-nosed? Offer up your take in the comments.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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