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Troubling Questions on Future Leadership for Nonprofits

Troubling Questions on Future Leadership for Nonprofits
By: Jessica Stannard-Friel, 4/18/07

The conference center breakout room looked like the site of any other conference I’ve attended.  Roundtables, littered with half-full coffee cups and water bottles, thoughtfully offered branded pens and note pads to conference participants.  Conference organizers with wireless microphones scrambled to reach attendees as they stood to address the speakers at the front of the room.  But here, the windowless conference room walls were covered in brainstorming notes from extremely participatory sessions, along with pictures and materials the attendees had brought to share with their fellow conference-goers.  And the attendees, standing to ask questions about tough issues, ranging from the nonprofit sector workforce to ethics in grantmaking to effective fundraising, looked a bit younger than usual.

Last week, approximately 50 young philanthropy professionals gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana for Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy’s (EPIP) biannual Chapter Leaders Gathering.  EPIP was founded by several young foundation professionals as a vehicle for promoting networking, leadership development, and advocacy for and by emerging professionals, in service of advancing social justice.  In Indianapolis, these young leaders embodied that mission, working together to learn about the history of the field from industry veterans like Indiana University Professor Emeritus Robert L. Payton, practicing skills like recruiting chapter members, and discussing issues like racial justice philanthropy.  The conference was alight with the energy of young people dedicated to advancing the sector and building their futures.

But, in amongst the optimism, a troubling question crept into a number of the presentations.  In the midst of get-to-know you games, we learned that a good portion of even these dedicated up-and-comers do not necessarily expect to be in the philanthropic sector in five years.  From participants Janice Lion and Yarrow Sandahl, both national board members with the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), we heard about a recent survey that shows that organization’s members are also ambivalent about their future in nonprofit organizations.  And from attendee Stephen Bauer, Director of the Initiative for Nonprofit Sector Careers at American Humanics, we learned about the obstacles facing the current generation of nonprofit leaders from oppressive educational loans to a dearth of professional development opportunities, but also about the efforts that organizations like his are undertaking to prevent the problem.

We at onPhilanthropy were hooked by this discussion.  We know that it affects all of us here, as well as all of our readers, as the Baby Boomer generation creeps toward retirement and turns to Generations X and Y to fill its place.  This week, we’ll look at the YNPN survey results, outlining the parameters of this potential problem.  Next week, we’ll talk to a range of leaders working in this field, including Bauer, Sandahl, and EPIP’s Rusty Stahl, to delve deeper into this issue, how it might impact the sector, and what we can do about it.

YNPN Survey

YNPN’s survey was conducted in January 2007; Sandahl, a MPA graduate student at San Francisco State University, with 8 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, served as the lead researcher.  Sandahl and YNPN have released preliminary survey results and expect the full report to be available in June.

The survey examined the attitudes of members of YNPN chapters and affiliate organizations.  1,657 individuals responded to the survey.  They represented a range of demographic categories: 

  • 82% are female
  • They are primarily white (72% white; 6% African American, 6% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 5% Latino/a).  
  • They are geographically diverse (36% West, 5% South, 16% Midwest, and 40% North)
  • Roughly 50% work in organizations with budgets below $3 million
  • 15% are under 25; 41% are 25-29; 22% are 30-34, and 15% are over 35
  • Already, a good number have significant responsibilities: 30% are in an administrator/assistant/associate/coordinator role; 20% are in a manager/officer/supervisor position; 18% are in director-level positions; and 6% are executive directors (the rest are “other”).

As Sandahl points out, “These people are already self-selecting to be engaged in leadership opportunities because of their membership in YNPN.”  They are very likely the people we’ll turn to when the Baby Boomers begin to retire.  They apparently enjoy their work in the sector enough to reach out to professional organizations, going above and beyond their job responsibilities to further their capacity to serve.  So they should be thrilled at the prospect of moving into nonprofit leadership roles…right?

Maybe not.  The YNPN survey had several findings that might be cause for concern:

Among respondents, 55% plan to stay in the nonprofit sector for their next job.  The other 45% intend to leave, for sectors such as consulting and for-profit companies.  The top two factors they cited as drivers for leaving the sector were salary/wages and burnout both indicated by at least half the participants, with burnout the most popular answer.

40% of respondents indicated that they were neutral or thought it unlikely that they would ever serve as executive directors.  Survey respondents cited long hours, the demands of funders, and the demands of boards as the primary barriers to pursuing those positions. 

If a significant proportion of these motivated young professionals, many of whom are already serving as second-tier leaders in their organizations, don’t expect to even pursue top leadership positions, who will fill the Baby Boomers’ large shoes?  Are we indeed facing a leadership deficit that will cripple our ballooning sector?  If so, how can we ensure that the next generation is willing and able to take on leadership roles?  Next week, onPhilanthropy explores those questions.

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