The nonprofit chief operating officer (COO) role can vary widely from one organization to the next. The role comes with challenges: it can feel isolating since COOs bridge between the CEO/board and the rest of staff, and COOs don’t often get as much investment or resources as CEOs. Yet their role is critical in helping organizations turn visions into reality, navigate change, and operate effectively.
From October 2019 to May 2021, a group of about 11 COOs from organizations of various sizes and lifecycle stages met regularly to talk about topics ranging from scenario planning to personal leadership strategies. This cohort – funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – was comprised exclusively of COOs from organizations focused on strengthening U.S. democracy. As they weathered the pandemic, election, racial reckoning, attack on the U.S. Capitol, and much more, their conversations surfaced commonalities and informed how their organizations navigated the tumultuous year.
In this Q&A, members of the cohort share reflections on what they’ve learned about the COO role and the importance of investing in this role.
What Is the COO Role?
“The COO role is often a grab-bag of different responsibilities. This cohort put a fine point on something I think we knew implicitly: the job description of a COO is to navigate change, and anything that falls under that broad definition is your job to manage.” – Layla Zaidane, Millennial Action Project
“My role has changed a lot since we founded this organization. I spent the last few years homing in on what my role should be and what’s unique to my position, rather than playing whack-a-mole or using the excuse that ‘we wear a lot of hats.’ With that mindset, you tend to spread yourself thin, trying to solve problems as they come up.” – Joe Coon, Niskanen Center
“When you’re more virtual, different people shine in different ways. The skillset of a COO comes to the forefront because if you look at the data and science of who makes a good leader, it’s different for a virtual leader. That potentially impacts CEOs and COOs.” – Erica Schoder, R Street Institute
How the Past Year Affected Their Leadership
“With the pandemic, there’s no playbook for how to deal with it. I learned to be a little more fluid in decision making and be more of a positive outlet for folks. A lot of people were down and worried about job security. I had to be that positive voice saying, ‘we’re going to get through this, we’re going to make this work.’ That was something I wasn’t always so good at.” – Justin Hill, Take Back Our Republic
“My self-care improved out of necessity. This year, we created a culture where we thought about self-care, were intentional about it, and incentivized it. The idea I would actually go for a walk during a meeting would have never happened before the crisis. We realized we needed to model it as leaders. We held ourselves accountable to it. Before, it was a little bit of lip service.” – Erica Schoder, R Street Institute
“We’re also thinking about, aside from COVID, how everything that happened – the election, the Trump presidency, Black Lives Matters – fits into us looking ahead for the next 10 years. For me, the biggest thing is, how can our organization be more inclusive? … Before taking someone’s money, we now take a moment to ask – is this company worthy of showcasing on our website? Is this a board member we want? Do we have any board members who should no longer be on the board? … What does bipartisan mean? … What voices do we want to elevate? … I feel much more passionate about taking a stand on all of that.” – Sabine Schleidt, Former Members of Congress
“We didn’t just survive; we thrived. The events of the past year helped us realize what was important and surfaced new opportunities. During the pandemic, we expected our normal in-person operations would be jeopardized and hard to replicate virtually. However, we were able to adjust quickly, our funding stayed steady, and we expanded our operations to deliver online events and content. Taking advantage of opportunities presented by these horrible times allowed us to expand what we do.” – David Priess, Lawfare Institute
How (and Why) to Engage Staff in Internal Changes
“People want to be heard and not be left out of big decisions that will meaningfully impact their work life. How can you transparently and honestly communicate the things you can share, and share them as early as possible? And how can you be transparent in communicating what you can’t talk about or don’t have an answer to? Communication is fundamental.” – Layla Zaidane, Millennial Action Project
“I lead by influence, not by authority. I rarely make a decision by myself. I prefer getting lots of ideas so my own decision is strengthened.” – Sangita Sigdyal, formerly with Fair Vote
“Communication is always key, as much transparency as possible, and as much heads up to staff so they’re prepared. We always let staff know, ‘this is coming around the bend, you’ll hear more about it,’ and always explain why so it doesn’t seem arbitrary or like we’re implementing protocols just because. We want to create efficiencies, not burdens. How will this help the organization in the long run? When rolling out policies, we as an executive team look at things first, then we take it to managers to get input and feedback. We make sure nothing is just foisted on people from above.” – Mary Mares, formerly with Campaign Legal Center
Why Democracy Organizations Need Greater Support
“My new organization [was] in the middle of all this controversy about certifying election results. … This organization’s work has never been as important and as controversial. We’ll need all the support in the world to save our democracy. It’s a very dangerous time.” – Sangita Sigdyal, currently with Verified Voting
“In the democracy space, … there’s a boom and bust in funding. Around elections, philanthropy funds organizations like ours that invest in the strength of our democracy. With the impact of COVID on people’s budgets, I worry that in non-election years, what does that mean for our budget and our organization?” – Layla Zaidane, Millennial Action Project
Why to Invest in COOs
“One of the things that’s been made clear to me through this cohort experience is that the operations and finance team is too small at my organization. We’ve kept the spending on management and general down at an unsustainable level. It’s been a huge awakening to learn how other organizations of similar size invest in the operations and finance teams.” – Amelia Leonardi, Issue One
“There are too few foundations who support this sort of thing. There’s very little investment in helping our organizations succeed at a management level.” – Joe Coon, Niskanen Center
Read more about what we and the COOs we worked with learned from this experience:
- Three Recommendations for COOs Navigating Change: If you’re a COO, the challenges of leadership may sometimes leave you feeling isolated, unsteady, or uncertain about how to chart a path forward. You’re not alone. Here are three recommendations for COOs grappling with this.
- [VIDEOS] Investing in COOs: An Interview with Daniel Stid of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation: Hear about why the Hewlett Foundation decided to invest in COOs and what they learned from a COO cohort experience.