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A Roundtable Discussion with Future Leaders in Philanthropy

By Tom Watson on February 14, 2008No Comment

I asked my colleagues, FLiP editors Will Schneider, Anastasia Hagan, Elisabeth Anderson and Lyndsay Reville, to participate in a roundtable discussion and get their take on the leadership shortage — as they see it and as discussed with other young professionals.

As consultants with Changing Our World Inc., we have the unique opportunity to come into contact with various non-profits and consequently, have a birds-eye view of their everyday needs. We each have between three to five years of experience with clients across all areas of the sector, from health care and education to social service organizations. Elisabeth, in particular, gave us the perspective from the grantmaking side of things.

Divine Tabios: To begin the conversation, do you think your clients, or other nonprofits that you are familiar with, recognize that the leadership shortage is looming?

Will Schneider:  It’s all over every publication, and every survey proves it – we are coming up on a leadership gap.

Anastasia Hagan: While I do not think that nonprofits necessarily realize that there is a large leadership shortage looming (in terms of scope), I do believe that they are preparing for change with the next generation.

Elisabeth Anderson: I come to this from a somewhat different perspective, as I work with corporate foundations and contributions programs, helping them to be strategic with their social impact initiatives.  The leadership issue is apparent just by looking at what corporations want to fund and what nonprofits want funded.  Nonprofit capacity building, including staff development and training, is huge.  Nonprofits are functioning more like businesses, and companies want to invest in the resources that help grantees operate efficiently.  There are no stronger internal resources than the people in positions of nonprofit leadership.

Divine: More importantly, do you think they are prepared for it?

Elisabeth: Somewhat.  Positively, I am encouraged by the incredibly smart, energetic, and dedicated young people streaming into the philanthropy world.  The problem seems to be in establishing and implementing the leadership-focused vision of nonprofits.  I believe funders and nonprofit grantees alike can do a better job of thinking long-term about leadership.  Instead of focusing on a one-off staff development program at a nonprofit, for example, a funder might sit down with a grantee and talk about overall leadership goals five, ten, twenty years down the line and then figure out how they can get there.

Will:  Anyone can see a problem coming, but the true leaders are acting on it. Nonprofit recruiting has never been the same as for-profit, and it never will be. Most nonprofits don’t hire at a fast enough pace to justify recruiting at colleges and universities. However, there are Web 2.0 methods of putting together a network of future leaders that shouldn’t be ignored.

Anastasia: I think today’s nonprofit leaders value the insight and the creative approaches of the next generation and are preparing them to take a leadership role in the future.

Divine: As someone who communicates with other young professionals in the sector through FLiP, what’s the buzz about eventually filling these positions?

Will: Young people realize that, shortly, they are going to be called upon to fill very influential roles. The up-and-comers are expanding their personal networks, taking classes, and in general trying to prepare themselves to step right in with very little transition time. Many are trying to establish their own nonprofits to fill that need.

Elisabeth: I think the buzz is more positive than not.  Philanthropy is ever more professionalized, and as more students have the opportunity to pursue grantmaking and fundraising earlier in life, the earlier they’ll be poised to take on leadership roles.  Still, you can’t have a conversation about nonprofit leadership without bringing up the inevitable issues of lifestyle and compensation.  As it stands today, being a nonprofit leader often requires financial and time-oriented sacrifices.  If that climate doesn’t improve, there will certainly be effects on the leadership pool.

Lyndsay Reville: Young professionals in the sector are incredibly driven and are excited about the opportunities ahead of them.   They take advantage of the impact of digitalization on the sector by reading and writing for blogs and being active in online social networks.  We are developing a network of our own with current leaders in the sector and our peers.

Divine:  Do you think young professionals are in the mindset to take on “Founder’s Syndrome”?

Elisabeth: Absolutely.  If there’s anything young professionals bring to the table, it’s fresh and creative energy.  Founder’s Syndrome is real, but I know that the old guard is increasingly interested in the perspectives of their junior staffs.  You can’t run a nonprofit today without addressing technology infrastructure, for example.  Beyond that, more and more nonprofits are seeking to use digital media to generate attention and dollars to their organizations.  Who’s savvy about that stuff?  Junior staffs.  The millennial perspective is critical to keeping causes current, and leaders know that.

Will: And as I said, a lot of young people are responding to that by founding their own nonprofit organizations. I think many of them would benefit by working for the larger, established nonprofits for a few years. There is a reason some of these nonprofits have been around, and by working for the best you can learn which qualities and structures to emulate.

Lyndsay: Founder’s Syndrome will be a difficult problem to solve since young professionals could learn a lot about the history and the progress an organization has made, but young professionals also represent the change that most founders are resisting. 

Divine: What are young professionals doing to “prepare” to lead organizations?

Elisabeth: They are going to school.  For fundraising.  And grantmaking.  Who would have thought?!  Some of the most common searches we see on the FLiP site are for “degrees” and “programs.”  People are directed to our site after Googling things like “MBA vs. MPA” and getting FLiP as a search result.

Will: I hear more and more about MBA programs with nonprofit concentrations. Universities are realizing that young business people are beginning to accept positions all over the non-profit world and the leading MBA programs such as NYU, Columbia, Harvard, and Yale are offering programs to fit their needs.

Divine: What do you think are the main differences in outlook between current leadership in nonprofits and young professionals in this sector?

Elisabeth: I see it mirroring the outlook differences between the generations in general, somewhat irrespective of nonprofit relationships.  Regardless of training, the millennial workforce is more digital, global, and message-savvy than any other.  That’ll carry forward in their work.  What I think we can learn from current leadership is to not lose sight of the power of real relationships not the faux-relationships we build in cyberspace (which have their value, to be sure), but the real ones.  Philanthropy remains a people’s endeavor.

Anastasia: Today, young professionals don’t look at the amount of years that they have been working in the sector as valuable, but the experience they have had in their work that gives them the ability to lead an organization.

Will: Current leaders entered into a sector that was largely unknown and unregulated. They have developed the nonprofit world into a massive piece of the United States economy that is being watched very closely by the government and by the media. It will be our job, as young leaders, to pick up where they left off and use this increased attention to better achieve our organizations’ missions. Whether we succeed or fail, it will be on a much bigger stage, and it will be under a much more powerful spotlight.

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