The Center’s Program & Information Manager, Danielle Wallis, was interviewed in follow-up to The Rome Group’s 2013 Philanthropic Landscape – check out her perspective on the next generation of nonprofit leadership.
How do you perceive the challenge of Next Gen nonprofit leadership? Are emerging leaders ready to move into leadership roles? What does the sector need to do differently to ready its young leaders?
“This question of the next generation nonprofit leadership is an urgent one, and one that has been a darkening cloud over the sector for the past decade or so, as the baby-boomers near retirement. From my perspective (and, I have to acknowledge how limited my understanding is of labor force economics) I see a robust, hardworking group of NPO leaders in their mid-40s, 50s and 60s; as these folks either consider a career change, or approach retirement, there has to be an intentional handing-off of leadership – the key questions are, ‘What does that look like?,’ and ‘To whom?’
“Many of these retiring leaders are becoming anxious, concerned that this next generation of leaders may not even exist. I promise, they do, but as you scan the crowd of young people in the field looking for the next leaders, don’t look for versions of yourselves. Today’s workers are exactly as hard-working as the generation before them, and the generation before them, but that hard work looks different now than it did then, and so does leadership.
“Among other things, technology for rapid communication and new mechanisms for data collection and analysis blur the boundaries between sectors, and change the nature of nonprofit work, moving us towards more complex, community change that takes place across sectors and beyond individual organizations. I’m excited to say that, among my ‘next gen’ peers in the nonprofit sector, I see a fundamental commitment to this collaborative work. Now, I can’t say whether this eagerness to work together is a product of our relative lack of institutional history and politics, of our naiveté, or of a true generational difference, but regardless of the source, it’s a commitment that we can and should preserve, and it’s a skill-set that, to a certain extent, we have to develop ourselves.
“Mind you, this not to say that we don’t need our mentors – we do. But we need that mentorship to be intentional. Teach us how to see the systems at play and to identify the moving parts, rather than simply how to operate within those systems. Be frank about the challenges and successes you experience, so that we can benefit from your learning. Narrate your own decision-making, so that we can see what you take into account as you go about your work. Coach us in identifying our day-to-day assumptions, so that we can access innovation.
“And, give us access to the hard work! We can’t rise to the occasion if not given the occasion to do so.”
It seems like low pay has always been at least a perceived hallmark of jobs in the nonprofit sector. Do you see this changing in the future? Does it need to change to attract the leaders we will need? If it doesn’t change, how can we attract those leaders and sell the sector?
“Low pay is perceived to be a hallmark of not-for-profit work. I think this is a huge detriment to the sector. There is a dysfunctional assumption that non-for-profit work has to come at the expense of the people that deliver the services. The distinction between for-profit and not-for-profit shouldn’t be in the wage of the people that work there, but rather in what is done with revenue of the organization: is it distributed to the shareholders, or is it re-invested in the service of the public? The “not-for-profit” designation describes the financial practices of the organization, not of the individuals working there.
“From conversations I’ve had with my peers, I think mine is a generation that may be more concerned with healthy work/life balance – with the underlying belief that well-balanced people can make better, more intentional contributions in the workplace, and better, more intentional contributions in their home lives. This being the case, I do think that we need to reassess our current acceptance of low-pay nonprofit work. Not only does it foreclose on potential nonprofit workers who are invested in the work, but not interested in sacrificing their well being for their jobs, but it also makes a statement about what we value as a culture, what we’re willing to pay for. It suggests that for-profit work is more valuable than not-for-profit work; we need to decide if that’s the value statement we want to make.
“I do think with the recent activity in social entrepreneurship, this idea that social impact has to come at the expense of the nonprofit worker is beginning to break down. We’re beginning to blur the boundaries between for-profit work and work that seeks to effect social change.
“All of this being the case, I do know that this is a larger economic system that will take time to change. In the meantime, it will still be important to find ways to attract the next generation of nonprofit leaders. There are a couple of strategies that come to my mind:
- “Recruit earlier – or, at least recruit! Whereas large, for-profit companies will begin recruiting their future employees in the junior year of college (if not earlier), nonprofits tend to rely on unpaid internships to create relationships with their future workforce – and these internships are often created out of desperation for staff help, rather than as an intentional mechanism for developing a workforce.
- “Professionalize the field. This is already happening, through fantastic programs like UMSL’s nonprofit management program, and the various social work schools in the area. If we’re hoping to have a sustainable, effective, and rigorous nonprofit sector, we have to start clearly articulating the skills and expertise needed to that make that happen, and invest in the development of those skills.
- “Professional development can’t be a luxury. Having access to professional development opportunities is both a necessity for organizations hoping to have a qualified workforce, and an incentive for potential workers assessing job options. Particularly when pay is low, valuable experiences help workers invest in their futures, even without more money in their pockets.”
What are the most important skills you think you will need to be a successful nonprofit leader in the future?
- The ability to build genuine relationships
- The ability to acknowledge and respect existing systems, but think beyond them
- Effective organization management & staff supervision skills
- Competency in policy & advocacy work
- Skilled in program evaluation
- Technological aptitude
- Ability to effectively participate in collaborative work (within and outside of a given organization)
- Humility and grace in acknowledging what you do and don’t know
- Maintaining cross-sector awareness and relationships
- Willingness to learn
How can nonprofits make better use of junior boards and committees to make them more appealing for young leaders and to use them as training grounds for future board and staff leaders?
“Opportunities for experience and exposure are key. Involve the junior board in both the mundane aspects of the work, as well as the tough organizational decisions. Create a system of one-to-one mentorship with the junior board and the senior board and make it a robust experience, rather than a resume-builder.”