All right, everyone, we need to freak out more about nonprofit leadership


sunflower-433994_960_720During the 17 months of our existence, my start-up organization has been guided by a single profound question: “Whose disgusting leftover salad is this that’s been in the fridge since June?!” That, and also, “What kind of leaders do we need in this time and place?” Both questions have prompted us to do some serious soul-searching. The latter, posed by our partner organization the Center for Ethical Leadership, has been on my mind a lot lately.

If you’ve been reading the news, it seems that the world is getting more and more complex, and sometimes scarier, and oftentimes sadder and more confusing. I know there are lots of good things happening too, but as I part with my two-year-old son each morning to go to work, I can’t help but hold him for a few seconds longer.  

The world is changing, and the nonprofit sector has a significant role to play. A big part of that role is to provide our community with the leaders that it needs. As much as we would like to, we can’t really rely on our corporate friends to be leading social movements, and political leaders have their challenges to wrestle with. It is often up to us to bring balance. Nonprofit leaders are the underappreciated Jedi knights of our world.

Considering the importance of leadership—and I define leaders broadly to include program and development staff as well as administrators—I’ve been disappointed with the conversations we’ve been having, or not having. There has been much handwringing about leadership in the nonprofit sector lately, but for the wrong reasons. We have been hearing about the wave of boomers in nonprofit who will soon retire, creating potentially huge gaps. I don’t think this is the problem; there are tons of talented Gen X and Millennial leaders out there waiting for a chance to prove themselves. The leadership problems we need to address in the sector are more nuanced and complex. Here are just a few:

Leaders are not reflective of the communities we serve: Only 18% of nonprofit professionals, 10% of EDs, and 5% of foundation CEOs are people of color. I can’t find the exact number, but I would estimate that over half the people we serve in the sector are of color. Also, with such a significant part of our sector and our society comprising women, it should alarm us all that the majority of the largest and most influential nonprofits tend to be led by men. We all need to be engaged in building the community we want to see, and leaders who don’t reflect their constituents also play vital roles, but it will become more and more critical that our leaders reflect the people we serve.

Leaders don’t have time to do their jobs: A huge weakness of our sector is that we are turning brilliant leaders into brilliant fundraisers. Development is an hands-952510_960_720essential element of our work, and some of the smartest and most talented professionals in our sector are fundraisers, but the balance is off. All of us are spending more and more of our time and energy freaking out about money instead of working with our teams to think about systemic issues and collaborating with others to address them.

Leaders are often not equipped to handle the changing landscapes: With funding being so unstable, so much of our time is focused on survival. It frequently leaves little room for us to deeply discuss race, gender, intersectionality, systemic inequity, our values, and how we can work effectively together. These conversations are vital to our work, and yet they are usually the last on our to-do/to-fund list.

Leaders are leaving the sector: Perhaps due to the above and other factors, I’ve been seeing more and more leaders packing it up and calling it in. Sometimes they’re crappy, and it’s probably for the best, but most of the time, they are awesome, passionate leaders that we desperately need. Every month at least one of my ED friends quits, and to be honest, I’ve thought about it from time to time. The work of helping people is hard enough, but layered on top of that is all the energy we must spend justifying our work—dealing with restricted funding, coming up with BS answers to the Sustainability Question, fighting to be seen as partners and not supplicants. Some days the challenges feel just so grueling and hopeless and insurmountable. We lose good leaders every day. And while there are always more leaders to take their place, the turnover is a serious problem.

Lately, as I talk to people about what my organization does—which is to bring more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector—I hear this expression a lot: “You don’t bet on the horse; you bet on the jockey.” The meaning, of course, is that an organization cannot perform without a strong leader at the helm. I’m not particularly fond of this expression, since it is overly simplistic and representative of an archaic model of leadership that relies on a single influential leader. But it has a point. No matter what issues we tackle—homelessness, climate change, unemployment, education inequity, art and cultural deserts—to do it well, we need strong, effective people.  


From the Talent Philanthropy Project

That is why all of us need to start freaking out over the fact that less than 1% of philanthropic dollars go into leadership development. It’s been like this for decades, according to the awesome Talent Philanthropy Project, who, in their seminal paper, observes that “Given the limited and apparently dwindling levels of foundation funding for nonprofit talent infrastructure, it is not surprising that the social sector suffers from poor recruitment, retention, and retirement, which could in turn be causing serious damage to performance and sustainability.” As I mentioned previously in “Capacity Building 9.0: Fund people to do stuff and get out of their way,” for a sector that is so heavily reliant on people, we have a disdain of funding nonprofit professionals.

But our society is changing. We cannot afford to continue to under-invest in the most important resource we have: people. The Talent Philanthropy Project is trying to get this 1% up to at least 10% by 2024, and I think that is critical. Here are some ways—inspired in great part by the TPP—we can spend this money:

Early recruitment: Most kids have no clue that nonprofit is a viable career. We cannot keep hoping that amazing people will magically stumble into the sector. We have to be more focused and invest in the talent we need, starting early, especially if we are trying to have our professionals look like the communities we serve. It would be awesome to hear a kid say, “When I grow up, I want to work for a nonprofit.”

Paid internships: Unpaid internships start our sector down the road toward undervaluing the professionals in our sector. They are also inequitable, as they may be outside the reach of many leaders from low-income communities. 

Fellowships: I’ve personally benefited from several fellowships. Besides the skills and experience you gain, the networks that organically form from fellowships will be more and more instrumental to our work of building an interconnected community. Fellowships can be targeted to recruit the talent that we need. 

Professional development: It is incredible how little we budget for PD. It always seems like some sort of bonus to get to attend a conference or seminar. Besides the importance of technical skills, the discussions on race, cultural competency, diversity, inclusion, equity, etc., are no longer optional.

Coaching: I’ve found coaching to be one of the most effective forms of professional development. A good coach will guide, challenge, encourage, and serve as a sounding board and outside observer.

Sabbaticals: Many effective leaders are burning out. Studies have shown how effective sabbaticals are for reenergizing leaders and improving team dynamics.

Increasing pay and benefits: As I mentioned in “All right, we need to talk about nonprofit salaries,” we have to pay our people more. Not only that, we need better benefits. It’s depressing how few of us get any sort of retirement benefits.  

No matter what our priorities are, no matter what issues we hope to tackle, we need strong leaders. And the type of leaders we need in this time and place are those who can understand the nuances of the world; who believe that ALL of us exist in one world, that there are no “others;” who know that society is shifting and that the systems and processes that we have used for hundreds of years may no longer work; who do not respond to change and uncertainty with fear and distancing, but with hope and inclusion; and who believe that the only way our community can thrive is if we all work together.

And who will remove their leftover salads from the office fridge.

I think our sector has tons of the leaders our world needs. We just have to invest more in them.


33 thoughts on “All right, everyone, we need to freak out more about nonprofit leadership

  1. PJ MacLean

    Awesome post Vu. As a consultant in the sector in Canada for 3 decades, some of the details are different, but the context is identical. To your point on people of color, we also need to underline women in leadership roles, who are seriously underrepresented despite the largely female workforce. We need all of the things you’ve written about. My most recent book Following the Leader is focused on succession planning. We are at a critical point in our sector and your post is right on point. if you are interested in the book. Keep up the great posts!

  2. Morris

    Thank you for this! So much to say but so little time; I have to go write a few grants! It’s going to be difficult to market this sector as a “viable career” because of the significant limitations you highlight. I know having left teaching, where there was pension, I am now deliberately making sure my kid doesn’t come into the sector. Thank God I was able to find a post that pays relatively well. But as you’ve highlighted Vu, when I go to meetings, there aren’t many of me. Most often I am the only black guy in the room esp if I go to a meeting of senior leaders in the sector.

    My favourite line of the month is: coming up with BS answers to the Sustainability Question.

    Second favourite: And the type of leaders we need in this time and place are those who can understand the nuances of the world …

  3. Craig

    I agree with others – one of your very best. Terrific resources and thought provoking. Thank you for your continued work on these posts Vu.

  4. Jefferson Spring

    This is one of the best posts yet. I have to say this–and I love this blog–but it strikes me as curiously inconsistent that you would decry the enormous shortage of women in leadership roles in a blog whose title is a crass reference to male genitalia (the cute drawing of colored balls notwithstanding)…a reference that is also derogatory to women by its inference that if you don’t have balls, then you don’t matter. Just sayin’. I’m not a prude, by any means. I just don’t like references that denigrate a gender. You would never, I presume, call anyone a “pussy”–a term we all know infers that if you have one of these, you don’t count. I would urge you to find a better metaphor: maybe “Nonprofits on Steroids”, for example.
    Regardless, please keep writing this excellent blog.

  5. Camille Schenkkan

    This blog post is fantastic. I can’t agree enough about the necessity to begin recruitment early– what if every mid-sized and large nonprofit had a teen program intended to help high school students learn more about careers in the field? These problems extend to college students, too, especially in the arts– even students in BFA/BA programs in a particular art form are only hearing about a small fraction of the range of careers in that art form.

  6. Tim Schottman

    Right on! A very thoughtful and solution-oriented blog for a central issue. Let’s back horses (and unicorns) of all colors!

  7. Richard Dietzel

    I spent much of my adult life in the field, board member/officer, employee, executive director and consultant and every point here is well made and important to consider.

    I led a support group for ED’s and every member used the group sounding board to make the decision to leave their current position, happily all stayed in the field but burn out is a chronic condition and can be fatal to a smaller organization.

    I think more small NP’s get started by smart, energetic, usually younger women but they never get a chance to move up the ladder in established organizations.

    I once asked a foundation head why they didn’t just fund competence not, jump through the hoops, grants. We had an interesting and frustrating conversation. Some funders would change directions each cycle, do something with at risk youth, no inter generational, no cross economic… Short attention span charity can be deadly.

    I was in the last generation of mostly self taught NP executives when I entered the field I think there was only one degree program in the US now it’s gotten to the point you can get degrees in sub areas of the field. I took every free or scholarship seminar/course that came along and that was what PD looks like for most people in the field and mentoring/coaching while wonderful usually puts an extra burden on the coach who has a zillion other plates spinning.

    Got the dander up! Thank you.

  8. laura

    first time to your blog and im already excited to read your next post. I
    really appreciate your insights and suggestions for improvement

  9. John Lay

    I like your blog, one thing I would suggest (as a college student) is to make sure you’re meeting with incoming freshman, have booths at college job fairs and do seminars showing the benefits of working with non profits.

  10. appendix

    I’ve worked in nonprofit regulatory oversight for many years and have observed much about nonprofit operations. Two things come to mind:

    1. The turnover thing. Not a recent or increasing phenomenon. I’ve watched countless nonprofits churn through staff on a seemingly endless quest for improvement. EDs often come and go with every board election. Groups with unstable boards have unstable staffs and vice versa. It doesn’t help that most ED’s I’ve encountered have multiple résumé entries for every few years in the sector. Why is that? Find the answer and fix it, and you’ve solved that problem. And remember: If you hire someone with 10 years’ experience and they’ve had more than 2 jobs, don’t expect them to stick around unless you intentionally build their loyalty.

    2. The color/gender thing: If you choose staff based more on race and gender than on skills, you’re going to have problems. Hire pros with business experience, if you can get them. You’re not going to “develop” someone into a leader. Hire a leader and whomever wants to lead will gravitate to that person for mentoring.

    1. Barbara Saunders

      But there is a race/gender dimension to this. If the pay is low, the only people with “business/leadership experience” you are going to get working for you are the spouses of breadwinners who make a lot of money. Few straight men. Few people of color.

  11. Erica Scott Pacheco

    I saw your blog on the Mission Based MA list. I agree with what you’re saying, but I can’t forward it along.

    For some time, I’ve been bothered by your blog name, and I can’t in good conscience spread this post among my networks. I know you have a FAQ about “with balls isn’t REALLY male genitalia, promise” but…seriously?

    The fact that you have to have this disclaimer speaks to the widespread misunderstanding of your name. Anyone who reads the URL will assume its about male privilege and power, not having many balls in the air.

    As you note in your blog:

    “Leaders are often not equipped to handle the changing landscapes: With funding being so unstable, so much of our time is focused on survival. It frequently leaves little room for us to deeply discuss race, gender, intersectionality, systemic inequity, our values, and how we can work effectively together.”

    How can we work together? Change your blog name.

    You are in a privileged position as a man, and you refuse to check that privilege and change your name. I don’t even understand why you would keep the name if it requires a disclaimer. Do you think most people make it to your disclaimer? I’ve been aware of your blog for months if not years, and I just now found it.

    The nonprofit with balls name microaggression becomes an act of oppression itself when you insist on keeping it despite women telling you its harmful to them as individuals, as organizations, as changemakers. The harm becomes intentional.

    Your blog not only becomes a male-dominated space by its name, but it also becomes a transphobic space in which balls are a signifier of the authority conveyed by “masculine” genitalia.

    Its unfortunate you only want to talk about intersectionality when it is convenient, and ignore it with your blog name. Very disappointing.

    1. Pete Noll

      Dear Erica,
      While your critique can be seen as legitimate, it is all the more reason to share the article (with you comment included). I often find great articles are made even more substantial by the conversations they can generate.

      I will let the author or leadership of the nonprofit make their own case for a name change or not, but I would put forth the oft used saying, “Let’s be careful not to judge a book by its cover”.

      I think this article is loaded with good stuff.

      Pete Noll

  12. Chrissy

    As usual, you’re right on Vu. Just wanted to bring the Denver Foundation’s Nonprofit Internship Program to your/your readers’ attention ( It’s been around 10+ years, is a 10-week PAID experience for college students (traditional and non-traditional adult learners) who are interested in nonprofit work. The program was developed as a pipeline program that would fulfill the Foundation’s commitment to advance inclusion and equity in the sector across the Denver Metro area (in this case, diversify the nonprofit workforce). It’s a fantastic model for folks interested in implementing their own program and have countless success stories to prove it works!

    1. dmvrunnergirl

      Thanks for sharing this! I manage my nonprofits university program. I’m always looking for creative frameworks for inspiration.

  13. Patrick Taylor

    Thank you for this.

    I don’t know what your experience is, but I can’t help but think that huge contributing factors to the dearth of nonprofit leaders are the combination of low salaries and time spent scrambling for money vs. actually working on managing the organization. Right now, in the San Francisco Bay area, the median salary for tech workers is just shy of $300,000 a year. Meanwhile, I see countless nonprofit ED jobs that pay a fraction of that. There was a full time job posted here recently for a management position that required accounting and donor relations experience that paid $30,000. That’s crazy. You can’t pay rent with $30,000. A receptionist at a fancy company gets paid more than some nonprofit execs. And if the you are making peanuts and spending your time groveling for money from donors, it is not hard to see why people leave the sector.

    My two cents.

    1. Michelle Dietz

      Yes, a bummer for our sector. I entered this field because I wanted to
      help people and rose to a leadership position as the result hard work,
      completing higher education, and perseverance. I make substantially
      less than friends and family who are in law, tech, marketing, and other
      corporate jobs. I know I am as smart as they are and work as hard or
      perhaps even harder. The difference isn’t in my abilities or in the
      value my effort brings to the world. The difference lies in measurable
      financial profit. People in high paying industries make more because
      they use their skills to do work that is critical for making a surplus of money (like my engineer friend at Tesla, not my janitor friend at Tesla). Non-profit, by definition, does not generate that level of surplus funds. Hence, the lower wages. This is enforced by the culture of philanthropy to not support any “fat” and the expectations of the people regarding efficiency in government spending. It is also reinforced by the collaborative ethic of nonprofit service. I don’t want to take more money from the limited philanthropic and government pot than needed because I want other good organizations to get their share too. (Obviously not a mind set you find in the competitive corporate world.) I’m not saying its right, its just the way it is. And I would choose this “way” over the corporate world any day. P.S. Those $30,000 per year jobs are probably filled by young ambitious people who will one day get the $100,000 nonprofit job.

  14. Frank Faragasso

    From reading your article it seems that you are driving out leaders by being obsessed with issues like the make up of your leaders and not the quality of your leaders. It makes no difference if your leaders are men, women, black, white etc…are they “leaders?” Leaders don’t spend their time fundraising, they hire fund raisers to do that so they can provide leadership to the organization, set goals, hire competent people and see that they are trained and understand the mission and goals of the organization. If your salaries are low, look to retired people as an excellent resource for experienced management skills who don’t need a huge salary but would appreciate an opportunity to contribute.

    1. Debra Chandler

      Perhaps you don’t have much experience in the non-profit sector, or you work for a large NP, but this idea that many NPs can afford both fundraisers and EDs is admirable and desirable, but not often possible. You are correct, in a non-stretched world, leaders lead and fundraisers fundraise. But in this very real world, leaders are the main voices of the organizations, and they have a large, if not complete role to play in fundraising.

  15. Alleysha J. Mullen

    Yes yes yes and yes!! Being in Leadership Development and having a non-profit background, it pains me to see how much organizations from other sectors invest in human capital knowing that non-profits have an uphill battle in this area. As you mentioned non-profits lose so many passionate, dedicated people because of the lack of resources and development opportunities. Although, non-profits deserve to have these good people onboard.

  16. sallydunford

    Your blog was passed on to me by a friend/colleague. I’m the ED of a very small, very busy CBO in the Bronx. I almost passed over it because I was afraid that it was another article with things that I should do in order to prove that we’re either honest enough or efficient enough.

    Its not the fundraising that I resent (although I’m not thrilled with it) for me its the logistical issues, and the minutia.

    I hate those articles where someone (often with much less experience and no idea what it looks like out here) tells me about something else to do to prove to them that I know my business. As I think you can tell, I hate those people. (OK, not the people — what they do)

    Especially when they hire themselves out to a funder, who give me more things to do that actually take me away from what I’ve learned really works. What I really need is someone who will help me deal with the real issues that we face out here — fundraising is one, but others include logistics, office coverage, defusing situations that end up at our office because no one knows where else to send them. –

    So nice that someone else is giving some thought to all this — any way I gotta run — the minutia is calling

  17. Hawkeye

    “Leaders are not reflective of the communities we serve:”
    It would be a mistake to focus on racial background and ethnicity as some kind of litmus test or a legitimate criteria that should be used to determine real diversity.

    Good leaders are good leaders not because of their outward appearance or background, but because of their intelligence, strategic vision, experience, ability to exercise good judgment and their decision-making. As such, boards and CEO’s should be “color blind” with respect to who they choose to fill leadership roles. The focus should be on ability and suitability.

    By inferring that some sort of visible equality quota is required assumes that leaders are somehow unavoidably predisposed to make decisions that are biased in favor of their individual culture, ethnicity or race.

    Frankly, I would expect good leaders to be insulted by the inference that good business decisions are made primarily according to self-interest. Good leaders rise above their cultural, racial, economic and ethnic sensibilities to apply their knowledge, wisdom, objective reasoning and judgment to the task at hand. They are focused on what’s best for the organization and their decisions are based on that. Whereas outward appearance and ethnic factors are worthy of consideration, they do not determine or pre-determine good decision-making and strategy (at least not with good leaders).

    I have hired many people in the past who were of color or were new immigrants. The sole criteria I used to determine whether or not I hired them or not was my assessment of their ability to handle the job. I did not concern myself with their gender, what color skin they had, or where they came from.

    You know a lot of us think that way. We don’t require affirmative action plans to do the right thing for our organizations.

    1. House0fTheBlueLights

      Your comment made my head explode. There is no such thing as color-blindness, and there is no such thing as “all other things being equal” or “I used [neutral] criteria. We carry our society’s biases, sometimes unconsciously. You’re not an ally if you are not affirmatively seeking older job applicants, differently abled job applicants, varied backgrounds (vets, no college, justice-involved people) and POC to fill available positions.

  18. House0fTheBlueLights

    The problems come from within existing leadership as well. There is a near ubiquitous disdain for leadership training, and a tendency for professionals in np to think “I don’t need to take the seminar, I could be giving the seminar”– well then, send your second tier. Because they’re not getting a good role model from you.

  19. Christina E Mitchell

    RE: Early Recruitment. I find it interesting “Harvard Business Review,” in discussing the nonprofit sector, makes the assumption MBAs will sit on nonprofit boards. Board service is part of the business culture. I agree the nonprofit sector must also develop a culture in which talented individuals see the nonprofit sector as a place to situate a career.

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