It is well known that a leadership gap is coming in the nonprofit sector. Due to the deluge of baby boomer nonprofit staff that will be retiring and the explosion in the sheer number of nonprofits, the sector will be scrambling to fill leadership positions.
A recent study, Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out, by the Casey Foundation and others, asked more than 600 nonprofit workers of various ages what problems they find in nonprofit work as well as why they chose it, stuck with it, or thought about leaving it.
The report provided a number of suggestions for current nonprofit leaders and their boards to get ahead of the coming crunch. In addition, the study authors provided advice for young staffers on how to become the next generation of nonprofit leaders:
- Take control of your career.
You are in charge of your own career. It is true that your executive director should have your best interests at heart, but don't wait for him or her to mentor you. Take the initiative by asking your director for opportunities to lead or take on special projects. Offer to lead a staff development effort, facilitate a meeting, or present a report to the board. Find workshops and trainings you wish to attend and ask for support in doing so.
- Develop broad management expertise.
Look outside your particular area of interest and find ways to broaden your experience. Next generation leaders will need to understand budgeting, grant-writing, and how to supervise. Embrace these responsibilities instead of dismissing them as administrative. You will need to be a generalist if you aim to serve as a leader and these areas and skills will put you closer to the heart of the organization. Building management skills while you build programmatic skills will help you overcome the nonprofit tendency to pit program against management.
- Join a board.
The study found that only 30% of the respondents had served on a nonprofit board of directors. If you haven't done so, you are missing out on an ideal way to prepare yourself for nonprofit leadership. Besides providing great experience, contacts made while on a board may become mentors or even referrals to new job opportunities.
- Find a mentor.
A mentor provides a model of career development and he or she can also introduce you to people, provide strategic career advice, and help you avoid mistakes. Look around. Who is doing interesting work? Who inspires you? A mentor does not have to be in your organization. Look around at people in your professional networks and approach likely people and develop a relationship. Someone you ask to mentor you will likely be flattered but don't overwhelm them right away...start with coffee and conversation first.
- Work with a coach.
Mentors can help you build a network and give advice, but a coach can help you build your skills and develop a career strategy. Executive coaches have existed in the business sector for many years and now that practice is appearing in the nonprofit world as well.
- Recognize and respect generational differences.
Try this: stop saying they just don't get it. It doesn't matter who is right or wrong, just try to understand generational differences and take the intiative to work over and around them. Remember it may be just as difficult for your older colleagues to understand you. When you recognize these differences, find a way to remember to focus on the work rather than on individuals. Understand that you are all working towards the same goal but your approaches might be different.
Follow these suggestions and you will be on your way to avoiding disillusionment with the nonprofit world and on track to being a next generation leader. Your future job prospects have never been brighter.