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What’s Driving Young Professionals from the Nonprofit Sector?

What’s Driving Young Professionals from the Nonprofit Sector?
By: Jessica Stannard-Friel, 4/26/2007

Last week, we shared the results of a Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) survey that showed that a significant portion of YNPN constituents don’t expect to become executive directors or perhaps to stay in the nonprofit sector at all.  Based on the volume of comments with which our readers responded, it looks like this is something that a number of you are worried about.

So are we staring down a potential crisis in the sector?  Rusty Stahl, the founding Executive Director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), a professional association for young grantmakers, is very supportive of efforts to develop the next generation of nonprofit leaders, but he isn’t sure that the picture the survey statistics paint is grim.  First, he doesn’t find the numbers terribly discouraging.  Rather than focusing on the 45% of survey respondents who said they might not work in the nonprofit sector for their next position, he points to the 55% who are planning to stay in the sector and says, “That’s actually not bad that’s a lot of people.” 

Stahl also thinks the responses indicating the survey respondents are considering leaving nonprofit work may be a natural element of career progression in this sector.  “Given the lack of structured career path in our sector, it’s not clear to me whether that angst is actually going to drive them to leave the sector,” Stahl says.  “They might not know what they’re going to do.”  In other words, while many young people aren’t sure if they will stay in the nonprofit sector for their next job, this may just be because they don’t have a clear career path to look to as they anticipate their next move, and they may indeed stay in this line of work. 

This lack of a clear career path also makes it hard to predict the survey respondents’ long-term plans.  Yarrow Sandahl, the YNPN board member and MPA graduate student who is serving as lead researcher on the survey, points out that this generation is particularly mobile; she says that Generation X and Y professionals are “comfortable moving jobs and even sectors.”  Even without the added confusion caused by the nonprofit sector’s lack of clear career paths, these individuals may be more inclined to leave this field to try something new.  In the long-run, though, this might not be a bad thing for the sector.  Sandahl says she’s interested to see if these young professionals will leave in search of an experience they aren’t finding in their nonprofit jobs, and then return after they obtain it, or if they will take a job that, while officially part of another sector, impacts the nonprofit sector.  She reports that YNPN plans to do focus groups with its constituents to further explore this issue. 

In addition, in the current market, even young professionals who are committed to socially responsible jobs have a wider variety of options.  According to Sandahl, this group might not see much of a difference between taking a position with a socially responsible enterprise and a traditional 501(c)(3).  Again, this might not be problematic, as the young professionals in question may continue to be mission-driven in such positions, still able to contribute to the common good.  However, it may present a challenge to nonprofits that need to fill their leadership positions in order to survive.

So it seems there is some question about whether the field is bleeding young talent, or at least whether it’s a big problem.  The survey also revealed another disconcerting trend, though.  It indicated that young professionals are hesitant to take on executive director positions, with 40% of respondents indicating they were neutral or thought it unlikely that they would ever serve in such a role.  The survey respondents cited long hours, the demands of funders, and the demands of boards as the top obstacles to becoming executive directors.  This view was backed up by some of the readers who commented on last week’s article.  “Neesh” wrote, “I honestly feel like they (the leaders of the organization) take care of the boring stuff while I get to do the fun/rewarding work. Why would I want to move up?”  “KS” commented, “I am one of these Generation X women with a masters degree who has worked as a Development Director in the nonprofit sector for the last seven years and I seriously won’t even consider an Executive Director position at this point in my life. Not only is the job subject to the whim of a committee of volunteers who don’t know how to do your job, but it is thankless and stressful.”  Even if young people intend to stay in the sector, are they willing and able to step into positions of leadership as the Baby Boomers currently occupying those positions retire?

Sandahl expresses concern about the messages current executive directors (EDs) are projecting for their younger colleagues.  “I think overwhelmingly people see an ED job as really high stress and lots of burnout, with the demands of funders and the demands of boards.  I don’t know if EDs are actually showing us the good side of their job,” she says.  At the same time, Sandahl says, young professionals see that they can make an impact in other positions, while avoiding the challenges faced by executive directors the same sentiment expressed by our reader Neesh.  According to this viewpoint, then, young professionals are unwilling to take on a leadership role that they find to be high cost, when they can obtain similar rewards in other, less stressful positions.  So perhaps, it’s not that young professionals don’t want to be executive directors, but rather that they don’t want to fill that role as it is currently modeled for them. 

Similarly, young professionals may be less than attracted to the leadership models they currently see in action.  Steven Bauer is the Director of the Initiative for Nonprofit Sector Careers at American Humanics.  American Humanics facilitates the Nonprofit Sector Workforce Coalition, a group of nonprofits, foundations, associations, and academic organizations that seeks to identify and address issues confronting the nonprofit sector workforce.  Bauer observes, “There’s a big difference in leadership styles between the existing leaders in the sector and this generation of young nonprofit professionals.”  For instances, he says that younger nonprofit professionals are less interested in hierarchy and more interested in teamwork, and that they are more likely to see technology as a solution for their problems.  He makes sure to point out that neither style is better or worse than the other, but that these differences can lead to “butting heads.”  According to Bauer, Baby Boomers “have built the modern nonprofit sector” and young professionals “kind of take that for granted.”  He says there is a “wealth of information and experience (young professionals) can be looking at and trying to gain from existing leaders.”  At the same time, he says that Baby Boomers “have a deep emotional investment in this work, and it’s hard to let something like that go and evolve.” 

In order to adequately take on leadership of the sector, today’s young professionals must be not only willing, but also able to step up.  According to Sandahl, the YNPN survey respondents reported concerns about the training that is currently available to them.  “Based on preliminary data (from the survey), it looks like we’re going to find that people aren’t looking for the technical skills, but management,  strategic planning, working with a board, having a mentor to teach them broader-based experiences.” 

So it looks like there are indeed a few obstacles standing in the way of a ready, willing, and able pool of executive director candidates.  How, then, can the nonprofit sector move forward?  If young professionals aren’t comfortable with current leadership models, perhaps it is time to begin to adjust them.  Steven Bauer spoke to the differing leadership styles that young professionals and current leaders bring to their work.  According to Bauer, both younger professionals and established leaders bear responsibility for bridging this divide, taking the best pieces of both leadership styles.  He also suggests exploring management models that aren’t currently pervasive, such as turning to both an executive and deputy director to run an organization.  In addition to fitting younger professionals’ more collaborative leadership preferences, such models could also work to address the burnout and stress that may keep today’s young professionals from pursuing executive director positions.

We learned from Sandahl that YNPN’s survey respondents don’t feel their training is adequately preparing them for leadership positions; it may therefore be time to reconsider current training strategies, as well. Sandahl expects that YNPN’s full report on the survey, expected to come out around late June, will provide more information about what kind of training young professionals say they need in order to succeed as executive leaders.  Says Sandahl, “Hopefully nonprofits and foundations will respond and adjust their training to what people say they’re looking for.”

In discussions with our interviewees, one possible solution rose to the top: Mentoring.  Sandahl believes that mentoring may be one way to address the problem of young professionals only seeing the downsides of the executive director role.  Through such relationships, perhaps they would be exposed to a more complete picture of the job.  She also sees mentoring as an important component of the type of management training her survey respondents are requesting.  Bauer, too, is a strong advocate for mentoring.  He sees mentoring programs as a way for young professionals and existing leaders to bridge the divide created by their different leadership styles.  Such programs may also address the transfer of knowledge from existing leaders to emerging leaders for which he sees a need.

Whatever the solution, this issue needs to be a priority, perhaps more of a priority than is currently the case.  Says Rusty Stahl, while the sector was not preparing adequately for this transition five years ago, “I think today, it’s slowly dawning on the upper echelon of the foundation field that they ought to be doing this, but I think it’s slower than it needs to be.  That goes for the nonprofit and foundation sectors.”  Stahl also thinks we need to be more proactive in making learning opportunities systematically available to young professionals.  Stahl, himself the product of a since-discontinued program for young program associates at the Ford Foundation, says “There are a smattering of fellowships and internships and apprenticeships across the field, but they’re not pulled together into anything accessible.  You have to randomly find out about something” in order to access these kinds of learning opportunities. 

And if the sector doesn’t act?  According to Sandahl, “I think the nonprofit sector will be … in a competition for talent, more than ever, so they’ll need to make some adjustments to make themselves that much more attractive, to be able to compete for talent.”  After all, she says, speaking for her peer group, “We have a lot of choices.” 

It’s up to all of us young professionals and current leaders alike to ensure that enough young professionals choose the nonprofit sector.
For additional information on this issue, see this bibliography and literature review, produced by American Humanics.

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