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Leaders needed as nonprofit sector grows

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By Mary Teresa Bitti

The nonprofit sector is growing up, and as it matures and expands, new skills sets are needed, experts say.

This ratcheting-up of skill requirements is most important at the executive level, where there is an increased demand for people with management, strategic planning and development skills, says Rebecca Worters, president of Capability Company, a Raleigh, N.C.-based executive-search firm for nonprofits.

“In many cases, leaders have been founders,” says Worters. “And whereas their enthusiasm and passion were enough to get an organization going, now some organizations have outgrown the first system of management and are looking for people who are more professionally trained.”

To fill that gap, post-secondary programs geared specifically to the nonprofit sector are sprouting up across the U.S.

Fields of study such as those at Indiana University, which offers public administration programs with an emphasis on nonprofit management, are borrowing from established business models to address the shift.

Lester M. Salamon, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, likens today’s situation in the nonprofit sector to the corporate world after World War II.

At that time, people trained as engineers in various fields moved into management positions and discovered that the skills needed to run a corporation were different from those needed to design products, he says.

That realization led to masters-degree programs in business administration that trained people in organizational design, management and finance, Salamon says, and he sees a similar evolution in nonprofits.

“These organizations have grown increasingly complex with multiple streams of funding, multiple stakeholders and multiple constituencies,” he says.  “This has required a set of management skills that people trained in social work, education or health-care simply don’t have.”

But finding candidates with the right stuff isn’t easy, says Worters, who is seeing a big uptick in the number of nonprofit boards asking about her services on this front.

“A lot of boards don’t know what to do, especially if they’ve had a founder who has been with the organization so long they’ve never had to conduct a job search for an executive director,” she says.

Many simply put an ad in the local paper and hope for the best, she says.

“They end up with stacks of resumes, become overwhelmed and take the first person who falls in their lap,” she says.

Worters offers two key pieces of advice when it comes to finding the right candidate: Target your message and, perhaps more importantly, target places you know these professionals are going to be.

“You have to go out to your colleagues and people in the sector and ask who would be good in this position and recruit people who are happy in their current positions,” she says. “That is a lot more effective than hiring anyone who happens to be looking for a job at the time.”

But with as many as 100 new nonprofits formed each day, according to some estimates, many in the nonprofit sector wonder if there will be enough people to meet the growing demand for talent.

With employment in the sector outpacing overall employment in 46 of 50 states, according to Salamon’s research, he isn’t convinced the problem is as serious as some fear, he says.

“I see the evidence of very considerable growth in employment,” he says. “So, somehow people are finding employees … I wouldn’t push the panic button on this one.”

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