Nonprofit Leadership: The Next Frontier

photo credit: ButterflySun via Flickr

I’ve had this report, Ready to Lead, on my desktop for a few months, but I just got around to reading it. If you share my concerns about the future of our nonprofit sector, are headed to executive leadership in a nonprofit organization yourself, and/or have questions about the leadership in your area of practice, you should read the whole report (it includes a thorough overview of the sample and methodology, so I’m not reiterating that either). Here, I’m highlighting some of the findings that have the most relevance for social workers, and for the organizations in which we work. In particular, although the authors of the report didn’t include this at all, there are some public policy approaches (big surprise!) that I think could help to address some of the challenges and gaps indicated by respondents.

I’d love to know what you think, not just about this report but about the state of leadership in your nonprofit. If you are a young professional, what do you see as your career trajectory? What influences your professional decisionmaking about organizations and positions within them? What skills and experiences must good nonprofit leaders possess? If you want to lead a nonprofit organization, do you feel ‘ready’ to do so? If not, what help do you need? What would help your current leadership to succeed?

Most provocative findings, and my thoughts:

  • By 2016, the nonprofit sector will need ~80,000 new managers per year! They have to come from somewhere, and, as we think about the future of social work and social work education, we have to figure out if we’re committed to ‘growing’ these leaders ourselves, and to really carving out a niche in nonprofit leadership, or if we’re going to see those positions go increasingly to individuals from the corporate world and/or from planning or nonprofit administration programs. It matters, I believe, what value perspective the leaders of our organizations share, but we have to acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of social workers choose a more direct practice/clinical track, and that that may mean that social workers increasingly find themselves working for non-social workers.
  • These worker preferences, in fact, continue to influence career decision making well into an individual’s advancement. Fifty-five percent of the sample (most of whom are already working in nonprofits) say that their interests or skills don’t align with executive leadership in nonprofits. Fear of distancing themselves from the work and/or reducing their job satisfaction were some of the primary concerns.
  • There’s not as much ‘hiring from within’ as in the for-profit sector–only ~1/3 of current executive directors were hired from their own organization, and 55% of survey respondents believe that they need to leave their current organizations in order to advance.
  • Not surprisingly, these experiences are different for women and people of color than for white men. While more people of color and foreign-born nonprofit workers aspire to executive leadership, white men in the sample were more likely to be on a leadership track, more likely to have received executive coaching, and more likely to say that they are currently ‘ready’ to lead. Obviously, this has major implications for social work education, which also tends to attract a majority white student body. If we’re going to truly reflect our society, and best equip our organizations with talented, skilled, prepared individuals with a desire to lead our organizations into the future, we have to aggressively recruit, actively mentor, and intentionally place more bright leaders of color.
  • Only 17% of respondents have a degree or certificate in nonprofit management or administration. Importantly, of those who do, relatively few feel that it, specifically, has prepared them for nonprofit leadership. Again, as we think about the future of our profession, we need to continually evaluate the skills and competencies that we transmit through our degree programs, communicating with nonprofit organizations about those skills they most need.
  • We need to confront the financial realities; many of our most talented nonprofit employees may leave nonprofits, especially as the economy improves, so that they can earn more money. One of the recommendations was that foundations invest in multiyear funding and institutional capital to allow for more adequate compensation packages and to facilitate succession planning. But here’s where public policy can come into play, too. Several respondents mentioned student loan debt as a major concern–obviously, more state and federal aid directly to higher education, as well as more generous financial aid packages, could reverse the tide of rising student debt and free graduates to make career decisions without worrying about default. Likewise, young nonprofit workers are particularly concerned about retirement savings; ensuring Social Security’s long-term solvency as well as adequacy, and restoring a measure of progressivity to pension/retirement systems could take some of this pressure off young workers during their careers.
  • And we can’t ignore the role that nonprofit organizational culture itself plays in creating and perpetuating this problem. Several respondents mentioned the ‘dated power structures’ that inhibit mentoring; the poor work/life balance; and the increasing demands on executive directors to do more with less as disincentives to their own pursuit of executive leadership. Addressing these factors as part of organizational advocacy strategies could make work life better for all those in nonprofits, improve agency functioning for clients, and, in the long-run, make these institutions easier to run, thus attracting more candidates for the job!
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