Do Friendly-Looking People Really Do A Better Job Running Nonprofits Than Businesses?

A study found that “dominant-looking” people are better business CEOs, while likable people are better at running nonprofits. That doesn’t seem right…

Do Friendly-Looking People Really Do A Better Job Running Nonprofits Than Businesses?
[Photo: Digital Vision/Getty Images]

Nonprofit leaders who are perceived as “warm” are more likely to run successful organizations than those who are seen as “powerful,” according to researchers from the University of Toronto.


In their study, “Predicting Firm Success From the Facial Appearance of Chief Executive Officers of Non-Profit Organizations,” which was published in the psychology journal Perception, post-doctoral researcher Daniel Re and psychology professor Nicholas Rule asked about 170 participants to rank 100 cropped headshots of CEOs associated with Forbes Largest Charities list by degrees of dominance, maturity, likability, and trustworthiness, among other characteristics. The first two were averaged into a power rating. The second two comprised warmth. When compared to several purported indicators of nonprofit health—say, fundraising efficiency and charitable commitments compared to expenses—those who appeared warmer performed better than those who were more powerful.

[Photo: opolja/iStockPhoto]

That’s interesting because it’s the exact opposite of what numerous researchers have discovered about what kind of CEO qualities correlate to a company generating the most revenue in the business world. “Even though the most successful CEOs of for-profit businesses might be these cutthroat, intense sharks, that’s not necessarily the key to good leadership across the board,” Re told in a story that quickly spread among numerous news outlets. “What we seem to have found is that people who come off as more powerful won’t get as far or do as well working at nonprofits… It’s not necessarily that nonprofits are picking softer-looking people, it’s that such people—perhaps drawn to working for a nobler cause—are likely the ones who have gotten ahead and risen through the ranks throughout their career in the nonprofit industry.”

The real concern with pop-psych studies like this is that once they go out into the business world they become treated like hiring manuals. As the headline puts it, “Looking for a good nonprofit CEO? Choose a teddy bear, not a shark, study says.” Not only do such statements ignore the fine print—for instance, because there were so few women and minorities on the list, researchers only used images of white men as their uniform baseline—but creating the perception that soft and warm people should be leading nonprofits (and, inversely that soft and warm people can’t lead businesses) may undermine these business’s ability to do good because it fundamentally changes the expectations of donors, grant-makers, and other group collaborators.

As Nonprofit Quarterly points out, a leader resonating either power or warmth may simply correlate with how they’ve adapted to the organizational structure of their operation. Depending on how much authority they’re given, they govern with either an executive or legislative approach. “In executive leadership, the individual leader has enough concentrated power simply to make the right decisions happen. Legislative leadership, on the other hand, relies more on persuasion, political currency, and shared interests to create the conditions for the right decisions to happen.”

As we’ve reported, many donors and grant makers seem more comfortable with this sort of legislative system, which can result in the problematic earmarking of how funds get spent. It can also lead smaller groups to compromise their goals, as they’re expected to abdicate to what industry commentators like NonprofitWithBalls calls “Trickle-Down-Community-Engagement.” On the flip side, being open, collaborative, nimble, and adaptive is basically the playbook that’s making so many Silicon Valley companies successful.

Just as judging a standard business purely by revenue may not always be the best indicator of success, assessing nonprofits by things like fundraising efficiency and charitable contributions is too reductive. How easily you raise money or how much you’re spending directly on projects, doesn’t always translate to the greatest gains in terms of improving lives or solving fundamental problems. It also doesn’t address the fact that many sharks and teddies may have earned their positions not through sheer talent but a well-known subconscious bias for people to hire those who remind them of themselves or who they want to be friends with.


Here’s a radical idea: Maybe it’s time to stop grading people by their looks entirely.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.