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.