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Leadership crisis requires action

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By John Quinterno

There’s nothing like a good social crisis to kick the nonprofit sector into action and bring out its best.

One can only hope, then, that nonprofits will bring that resourcefulness to bear on the newly discovered leadership “crisis” confronting their own sector.

Two recent studies – one by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the other by The Bridgespan Group – argue that a combination of demographic, economic and organizational trends will create a significant shortage of nonprofit leaders in the near future.

This development has been obvious for some time. While the leadership problems result from many internal and external factors, an unwillingness on the part of nonprofits to cultivate young employees deserves special attention.

Passionate, creative employees are the lifeblood of any nonprofit. Consequently, nonprofits should view their people as their best assets and strive to attract, develop and retain high-quality, young employees.

Unfortunately, too many nonprofits not only fail at this task, but also manage to drive away talented young employees, who are the sector’s future and a relatively rare commodity in an aging society.

The solution is to recognize the ambition and needs of young employees.

Research by scholar Paul Light shows that young adults drawn to public service want to be challenged by their work and rewarded for their accomplishments.

Yet too many nonprofits are blind to this, and this blindness costs.

To find the challenges they crave, younger employees consequently are forced to switch organizations – a switch that imposes higher turnover costs and productivity losses on employers.

Furthermore, extreme levels of frustration may lead the best and brightest young employees to abandon the nonprofit sector entirely.

Of course, financial and organizational realities constrain a nonprofit’s ability to invest in younger employees.

Yet these factors too frequently are used as excuse when the real issue is an unwillingness to learn what matters to young employees, and craft innovative solutions dovetailed to organizational realities.

It is absurd to believe that organizations that regularly turn limited resources into dynamic responses to social needs are incapable of finding ways of molding young employees into future leaders.

If anything of value comes out of the new nonprofit leadership crisis, it should be an awareness of how nonprofits helped to create the problem.

Organizations that learn and adapt will survive the crisis, while those that fail to change simply will cease to be.


John Quinterno lives in Chapel Hill and writes frequently about public policy.

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