The coming leadership crunch in nonprofits has been in the news for some time. The retirement of the baby boom generation plus the explosive growth of nonprofits in recent years promise a disaster for nonprofits as they look for new leadership.
A recent study, Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out, by the Casey Foundation, the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, and Idealist.org. probed this problem. The study asked more than 600 nonprofit workers of various ages what problems they find in nonprofit work as well as why they got into it, stuck with it, or contemplated leaving it.
The Washington Post summarized the bad news from the report:
Even as baby boomers retire, nonprofit groups stand to lose ambitious young employees who feel underpaid, overwhelmed by long hours and demanding responsibilities, and frustrated by a lack of career progression, according to a major study....
The sobering report....could shake up the nonprofit sector, which has been successful at recruiting recent college graduates but not always at keeping them. Many leave for jobs at private companies and in the federal government that often offer better pay and more comfortable lifestyles.
As many as one-third of the workers surveyed said that they were interested in leading a nonprofit but most felt that they were not being mentored or groomed for such leadership.
In addition, 69% of the respondents felt underpaid while half of that group worried that they would not have the money to retire comfortably.
People who work in nonprofits generally do so because of the opportunity to do something worthwhile, but a worrying subset of young people may find ways of doing that good outside the conventional nonprofit sector.
Attracting and Keeping the Next Generation of Leaders
The report has some very specific suggestions. For current Executive Directors, it provides this advice:
- Replace outdated power structures. Younger generations do not appreciate traditional hierarchy and expect to be included in decision making.
- Help staff build strong external networks. Invite younger staff to attend meetings with funders and colleagues. Give them access to the board where they can staff board committees, attend and present at board meetings, and help find new board members. Send them to community meetings.
- Be a mentor. Serve as a talent scout for future leaders for your own organization and others.
- Be a good role model. Respondents in the study often said their executive directors were poor models of leadership, sacrificing good work-life balance and courting burnout. Don't leave the impression that 80-hour work weeks are the only essential for leadership.
- Pay reasonable salaries and provide good benefits. Financial sacrifice should no longer be part of the nonprofit business model. Passion will not trump decent pay and reasonable work hours.
- Engage in succession planning. Periodically ask if you are still the right person for the job, and be proactive in attracting and retaining talented staff who might be eligible for future leadership.
- Become educated about generational differences and don't be judgmental about the priorities of younger staff.
Boards of Directors are encouraged by the leadership study to consider these actions:
- Pay reasonable salaries and provide benefits to staff.
- Look beyond the Executive Director and make sure that leadership is being developed deep in the organization. Support training and recruitment of diverse staff.
- Step out of your comfort zone by recruiting board members from other age groups and backgrounds.
Even funders are exhorted by the study to take actions such as:
- Be willing to fund leadership and training programs. Support succession planning, coaching, and other kinds of professional development.
- Have a conversation with grantees about these issues and be prepared to help with solutions.
- Avoid behaviors that make things worse for nonprofits and their leaders. In the study, the challenge of accessing institutional capital was one of the causes of executive burnout. Plus, among next generation leaders, an aversion to fundraising was the primary reason people gave for not aspiring to nonprofit leadership roles.