The New Leadership Crisis

Mar 11, 2009 by

Flickr photo by Chris.Violette
Flickr photo by Chris.Violette

Over the last couple of years, I have done a fair amount of reading and researching about the so-called ‘leadership crisis’ in the nonprofit sector (check out some info here). Here’s the short and dirty: in the next several years, thousands of (older) nonprofit leaders are going to retire and there isn’t enough talent to take over the positions these leaders will vacate. Thomas Tierney, who authored a study through the Bridgespan Group predictably titled The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit, [PDF] posits that “For the years spanning 2007 to 2016, [nonprofits] will need to attract and develop a total of 640,000 new senior managers – or the equivalent of 2.4 times the number currently employed.”* In other words: the sky is falling!

Except…it isn’t.

Of course, there is and always has been a great need for leadership in the nonprofit sector. Almost every American looks to or even depends on local nonprofits to provide basic services, build community and supply an avenue for advocacy. But to assume there aren’t leaders ready, willing and bursting at the seams to take the reins is asinine. There are thousands and thousands of mid-career nonprofit staffers (including yours truly) who are eager and willing to lead our organizations to success now and in the future. So where is this so-called leadership crisis?

The new crisis actually has to do with people staying instead of leaving. As the economy continues to get worse, baby boomer leaders who had planned to leave in the next few years are going to stay around. (Frankly, I don’t blame them. Nonprofits aren’t known for spectacular – or any – retirement plans and some people don’t have 40 more years to recoup their 30%+ 401k losses like I do.) We’re also going to get a lot of corporate types who decide they want to ‘do good’ and assume that coming to a nonprofit will be an easy way to make a living. And finally, we’ll have the young and emerging nonprofit leaders who want to advance in their career and keep moving on up in their organizations. With multiple generations, different work and life experiences and a very challenging fundraising and service-provision environment, things are going to get even more difficult.

This is where intergenerational dialogue comes in. Creating and/or expanding conversations between diverse people in your nonprofit is one of the only ways I can see to maintain a congenial work environment. Beyond the politeness factor though is the hard truth of trying to do more with less constantly. If the (older) leaders running our organizations don’t recognize and implement the new and innovative ideas coming up from their junior staff, they are going to lose out on many opportunities. By the same token, if younger and newer leaders refuse to learn from or respect the experience of established leaders, they are going to miss out on tremendous learning experiences.

They may not be pretty, but really difficult situations require a depth of knowledge, flexibility and courage that many people will never have the chance to develop. We all need to work together to make sure that we’re learning new things, using the resources and people in our organizations (and sector) and making ourselves stronger for the long haul. If we do this, we’ll be ready when the next ‘crisis’ comes around.

*If you want to avoid the PDF, you can read an article by Tierney in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about his report.

P.S. If you’re interested in learning how to facilitate intergenerational conversations in your organization, please check out this unique workbook  I recently co-authored: Work With Me: Intergenerational Conversations for Nonprofit Leadership. It is an easy-to-use, hands-on workbook designed to help nonprofits identify and leverage the expertise of all generations. Contact me if you have questions.


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  • Suzy Meneguzzo

    THANK YOU for speaking for those of us squeezed in the middle! I’ve often balked at this cry that there is a lack of upcoming leadership (hey- I’m not chopped liver and I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years now!). On the other hand, I’ve also got the Y’ers who are chomping at the bit to move up.

    At any rate my experience has never been a lack of leadership just as you say- the trick is getting all the “chefs in the kitchen” acting together for the best results for our clients.

    I also really identify with the generation gap issue. It isn’t easy being in the middle between eager young workers ready to change everything now and the older leadership who feel a great deal of confidence in the way things have been working.

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  • Suzy – You are welcome! It feels really insulting and demeaning when people break out the ‘no one is qualified to take over our amazing organization’ lament. The next conclusion from these people inevitable is ‘let’s hire from outside our organization and outside our sector’ Hello! We are right here! If you’d just open your eyes and look around, you’d see the talent that is there.

    I hear you on the generation gap issue. I often think Gen X-ers and those of us in the middle have the hardest role to play in this little drama for precisely the reason you cite. Unfortunately, I don’t see much recognition of that problem or action to solve it. Do you have ideas?

  • Commongood Careers has examined the situation you’ve pointed out in some detail. After surveying nearly 2K nonprofit employees/jobseekers last year, we heard many of these sentiments across all levels of nonprofit employment, but especially middle management. For example, the majority of respondents stated that might keep them employed at a single organization for 5-10 years, the top response was “feeling continually challenged by my job.” On the other hand, respondents indicated that the relative absence of career ladders, mentors and professional development might limit their long-term ability to remain in the sector.

    To address middle managers’ ability to advance their careers and develop profesionally, we have a few suggestions for nonprofit employers:

    1. Consider “re-scaling” growth plans for increased salaries across fewer, higher-level employees.
    2. Stay current with evolving salary trends and maintain your competitiveness in compensation.
    3. Get creative with benefits, offering more flexibility with vacation time and employment arrangements.
    4. Build career ladders for every employee, identify successors, and promote employees regularly.
    5. Challenge and develop employees through in-house training programs and mentoring opportunities.

    You can read more about this in our report, The Voice of Nonprofit Talent in 2008, at:

    Thanks for this blog post, and to contributing to the conversation about talent-related issues in the nonprofit sector.

  • Thanks for the note and the info Dana!

  • Kevin

    You are correct, in part, that the leadership crisis is about people staying. The baby-boomer generation is re-tooling the concept of work and it is the subsequent generations that will be waiting longer through working beyond “retirement age” as well as people having second full careers. The question that nonprofit managers have to determine is if people retiirng from business backgrounds are “the catch” that we always make them out to be. I was doing a survey two years ago preparing my master’s thesis on succession planning and leadership development. The respondent was a chief financial officer for an organization who had, until joining his nonprofit, had spent his entire career in the for profit community. He was tired and frustrated at the pace and processes affiliated with nonprofit organizations and could not make any headway at making the organization more “businesslike” because of resistence from the ED and the Board. So, is it the ideas? They were pretty mainstream for profit business practices, but not entirely good for nonprofits. This represents a disservice to the experienced manager who is banging his head against the wall as well as the organization for not getting a CFO who knows, understands, and works for changes that “mesh” good financial management practices with the realities of the relevant laws and practices commonly accepted in nonprofits. A, possibly younger, nonprofit veteran might have understood that issue.

  • Interesting story and a really good point. The question of ‘fit’ is always one that is difficult for employers and employees alike (regardless of sector).

    I think some younger leaders might be facing similar problems to the one you cited with the CFO. They may have ‘grown up’ in the nonprofit sector, but they still have ideas about newer, more efficient ways of doing things. Unfortunately, if their EDs and boards don’t understand it or take it seriously and/or are unwilling to change at all, they are left banging their heads against a wall.

    Perhaps the answer is both cases is that nonprofits should be more flexible. Whether the ideas have to do with more ‘business-like’ practices or technology tools (or whatever), nonprofits need to be more open to new ideas. Doing things ‘because we’ve always done them this way’ is not a good reason to continue on.

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