Print More

The nonprofit sector is on the brink of a leadership crisis. That, at least, has been the message behind a spate of recent surveys and reports predicting that the baby boomers who occupy most leadership roles will leave a vacuum behind when they retire en masse.

In 2004, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 65 percent of the executive directors it surveyed planned to leave their job in the next five years. Last year the CompassPoint research and consulting firm put the number at 75 percent. And then the Bridgespan Group, which estimated that the nonprofit sector will need to attract and develop 640,000 senior managers over the next decade, identified the so-called leadership deficit as “the greatest challenge facing nonprofits over the next ten years.”

Leaders in the nonprofit world have grown somewhat skeptical of these “End is Near” signs, pointing out that many baby boomers plan to continue working into their late 60s and 70s – and won’t all retire at once. “There’s been a little bit of alarmism,” says Nancy Wackstein, 54, executive director of the United Neighborhood Houses, which represents settlement houses and community centers in New York City.

But a new survey from the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN), a nationwide grassroots group representing roughly 10,000 of the sector’s 20- and 30-somethings, points to a trend that could be even worse than the exodus of seasoned leaders: Young people in the nonprofit world are not necessarily eager to take their place.

According to the survey results, only 45% of the roughly 1,700 members who responded expect their next job to be in the nonprofit sector – “burnout” and low salaries being the two biggest reasons they cited – and less than 30 percent identified themselves as “highly likely” to become an executive director in a nonprofit organization. All of this appears not to bode well for filling the huge workforce need described by the Bridgespan study. The results were released at a well-attended panel discussion at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service on March 9, which kicked off the Network’s national leadership conference here, an annual gathering of board members from the organization’s 14 chapters across the country.

“When you ask them what they’re going to do next, it tells you more about what they think of their job now,” said Frances Kunreuther, the (baby-boomer) director of the Building Movement Project, a New York-based organization that supports other non-profits, during the panel discussion. “We have failed to make these jobs attractive to people,” she added, pointing out that executive directors are more often than not overworked, underpaid, and micromanaged by donors and board members.

That is exactly the sort of stocktaking the YNPN was hoping to provoke. According to Stephanie Lin, 27, the co-chair of the New York City chapter of the YNPN, concern over the leadership gap caused by the departing baby boomers has overshadowed the need to retain and nurture the talent in her own cohort. Lin recently attended a talk given by the author of the Bridgespan Group study, and she says, “It was all about senior management – executive directors, chief operating officers. Nobody really addressed the middle-management people in their late 20s and early 30s. And I think there’s a lack of focus on developing these people.”

The respondents to the YNPN survey cited “lack of career path” as another common reason to leave the sector. To address this perception the New York chapter has, like the national YNPN and some of the other chapters, identified professional development as a priority.

During its five-year existence, the New York chapter has been geared primarily toward networking, with a series of monthly “hangouts” and an active e-mail exchange through which members announce job openings and event information. But in recent months the chapter has also begun a recurring career counseling event and hosted a personal finance seminar (“Living Well, Doing Good… on a Nonprofit Salary!”) that drew nearly 200 people. And over the past two years the city chapter has seen its membership triple, to a current membership of 2,500.

“We’re trying to provide the next generation of nonprofit leaders with career guidance and venues where they can improve their skills,” says Jorge Montalvo, a YNPN New York board member.

Michael Clark, the executive director of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee, a non-profit umbrella group that represents 1,400 organizations in New York, is among the nonprofit leaders who are skeptical of the demographic time-bomb theory. But he suggests that when it comes to professional development these young nonprofit professionals are “on to something.”

“Are young people in the nonprofit sector now moving up at the rate, and with the support, that will enable them to comfortably glide into positions of leadership?” Clark asks. “I would suspect that in many cases the answer is no. My guess is there isn’t enough mentoring going on.”

The YNPN isn’t setting its sights on mentoring and professional development alone, however. Using the survey as a platform, the organization plans to fashion an advocacy agenda to draw attention to other problems it considers endemic to the sector: meager salaries, resistance to innovation, a lack of diversity.

By all accounts these are stubborn problems – Kunreuther, for one, likened solving them to “turning around a barge” – but the good news is that the YNPN will likely have some time to devise solutions. To hear Wackstein and others tell it, when the young nonprofit professionals are ready to take over, they may find that the boomers are reluctant to part with their beloved organizations. As Wackstein put it, with a chuckle, “I think some of the people in these jobs now are going to die in their boots.”

– Ray Hainer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *