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Developing nonprofit leaders critical

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By Dwight F. Burlingame

Fifty-five percent of nonprofit executives are over age 50 and expected to retire in the next 15 years, according to research by CompassPoint and the Meyer Foundation.

Preparing others to assume this mantle of leadership is a critical challenge facing individual nonprofits and the sector.

These new leaders may come from the ranks of current nonprofit professionals, transition from business careers, or be among the first generations to choose and be educated for philanthropy careers from the outset.

They are inheriting a sector that daily grows more complex and challenging.

The number of nonprofits and foundations continues to expand. Competition among nonprofits and with for-profit enterprises is increasing. Lines dividing nonprofit, for-profit and government roles are blurring.

And donors, foundations, the public and elected officials are demanding greater accountability, more “efficient” operations, measurable outcomes, and verifiable, meaningful impact on society.

Equipping the sector’s future leaders to succeed amidst these complexities will require them, their employers and the sector to wholeheartedly commit to ongoing education and training.

A wide range of resources is available. Academic programs in philanthropic studies and nonprofit management, from the bachelor’s and Ph.D. levels to certificate programs, are proliferating.

Continuing education programs provide additional knowledge, principles and techniques.

Numerous sector professional associations offer training in skills from grant-proposal writing to board development.

Aspiring leaders must seek and demand access to increasingly meaningful educational opportunities that go beyond training in basic management to preparation for thoughtful, insightful leadership.

Tomorrow’s nonprofit leaders must acquire the understanding and expertise that will enable them to lead great organizations to fulfill noble missions that spur cultural growth, address societal inequalities, and strengthen civil society.

Technical excellence in nonprofit operations, including important skills such as finance, budgeting, program management and evaluation, are vital to a leader’s success – but true leadership for the future will require more.

The best leaders go beyond “how to” to “why.”

Understanding the context of the work we do in philanthropy — the historical context from which today’s sector emerged, current big-picture issues and how they got to be that way, what external forces or factors influence them, past approaches that worked or didn’t — is perhaps the most important element of a nonprofit leader’s success.

A liberal arts education in philanthropy equips future executives with this understanding and provides the critical thinking ability necessary to anticipate, analyze, problem-solve and think on one’s feet.

Vision and judgment are critical qualities for a nonprofit leader because of the mission-driven nature of nonprofits.

A leader must have the ability to understand how his or her organization affects society, how the organizational mission can be carried out most effectively to achieve the greatest impact, and how resources — human and financial — can best be acquired and engaged to actualize the mission.

This includes the ability to balance and meet the needs of all constituencies.

Excellent communication skills and a drive to inspire others — staff, volunteers or donors — are also vital aspects of leadership.

A leader must recognize and fully utilize each staff person’s strengths to form an effective, efficient organization.

Finally, ethics and integrity are paramount – for oneself and because staff will follow one’s example.

Nonprofit leaders must be above reproach, accountable for their actions, and transparent in their decisions.

Ethical leaders will foster ethical organizations and an ethical sector.


Dwight F. Burlingame is associate executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and director of the center’s academic programs.

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