Nonprofit training seen trailing demand

By Todd Cohen

Rapid expansion and rising competition in the nonprofit sector are fueling a growing marketplace for programs offering professional education and training.

But those programs often fail to address the actual needs of nonprofit professionals to improve their skills for delivering services, managing organizations and leading the charge for change, experts say.

Also lacking, they say, are the resources charities need to secure the training and education they want for their staff, managers and leaders.

“There’s a lot of unmet need and a lot of disagreement over what the priorities should be,” says David Hammack, a professor of history who teaches at the Mandell Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

And despite rapid growth in the number of professional-development programs that colleges, universities, professional organizations and consulting firms offer, experts say, those programs often focus on the nuts and bolts of management and fundraising rather than on specific skills nonprofit leaders need to shape the future of their organizations and communities.

“They’re calling it leadership but really they focus on the internal management skills,” says Naomi Wish, director of the Center for Public Service at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

The goal, she says, should be to develop skills to lead the sector as a whole, not simply to manage individual nonprofits.

A curb on the effectiveness of programs to train nonprofit managers, fundraisers and leaders is a lack of foundation support, experts say.

“Foundations provide less funding and support for professional development of nonprofit leaders than you would think, given their rhetoric about capacity-building, says Phil Buchanan, executive director of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Cambridge, Mass.

Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says the nonprofit sector faces a “crisis of leadership” that foundations and professional-development programs do not address.

“In the field of philanthropy, you have an intellectually moribund profession,” Eisenberg says. “You can’t ever hear a whisper of criticism within philanthropy about the field. It is also a field that has refused to discuss seriously the major issues facing foundations in the next decade.”


Growth in the charitable marketplace has fed the growth of programs offering professional development for nonprofits, experts say.

Denominational religious organizations have long traditions of providing training programs for employees of their charities that provide outreach services, Hammack says.

Starting in the 19th century, he says, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant organizations provided professional education for their own leaders.

And in the 1920s, the YMCA, a Protestant organization, trained people who went on to work in local “community chests” – precursors of United Way – and for other nonprofits and smaller colleges.

But it was the massive influx in the 1960s in federal funding for social, health and education programs, plus the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which required greater reporting of nonprofit activity to the Internal Revenue Service, that prompted greater demand among secular nonprofits for more professional education, Hammack says.

Also spurring demand for training, he says, was a spike in employment at nonprofits — to 9 percent of the U.S. labor force in 2000 from less than 3 percent in 1950.

“If the labor force expanded that much, then there was a huge need for managing that labor force and leading it,” he says.

Helping to drive the market for training, he says, have been a surge in Americans’ wealth, which fueled an increase in demand for nonprofit services, and the birth and growth of the civil-rights movement, which helped remove barriers to the creation of new nonprofits to serve groups like African Americans and women.


Over 250 colleges and universities offer at least one course in nonprofit management, and 114 offer a concentration, up from 17 schools in 1990 that offered any kind of nonprofit programming, according to research by Roseanne Mirabella, chair of the department of political science at Seton Hall University.

Over 170 schools offer master’s degrees in nonprofit management or master’s programs with at least some nonprofit courses, including 77 master’s programs in public affairs or public administration, Mirabella says.

And the Cleveland-based Nonprofit Academic Centers Council counts as members 46 schools that have created nonprofit centers or institutes, says Amy McClellan, the council’s executive director.

Mary Tschirhart, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, says the number of public affairs or public administration programs offering degrees or concentrations in nonprofit management has grown in response to the professionalization of the nonprofit sector, the shift by government of many of its services to nonprofits, and an increase in “collaborative, multi-sectoral” activities.


Critical for nonprofit training are the source and adequacy of funding to pay for it, experts say.

The attitude at many nonprofits is for “somebody else to pay for the development of my staff,” Hammack says. “There’s a difference between what people would like to happen and what they’ve got the resources or are willing to devote resources to pay for.”

Eisenberg faults foundations for much of the mismatch between nonprofits’ needs for professional development and the programs that are available.

“The foundations are not investing in serious efforts at technical assistance,” he says.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, he says, a number of organizations provided comprehensive technical assistance to nonprofits, particularly to groups that focused on housing, community and economic development, and policy work.

But few of those support organizations have survived because the foundations that funded them decided it would be cheaper or more efficient to give money directly to nonprofits so they could hire consultants, Eisenberg says.

And many consultants lack the experience in grassroots and community organizing needed to provide comprehensive technical assistance in topics like activism, constituency-mobilization, policy work, issue advocacy and community organizing, he says.

Foundations generally do not provide adequate funding for nonprofit professional development because “they are comfortable doing what they do,” Eisenberg says. “It is a smug, self-satisfied group of folks, extremely well-paid, especially at the top, beyond their talents and capacity, who prefer to do nothing.”

Buchanan says some foundations “provide really good support” for professional development, but that “what is the exception are foundations that do it and do it in big and effective way.”

Foundations also do not fund much training for fundraising, he says.

“We don’t see a lot of foundations that are making the provision of fundraising training or support to grantees a really high priority,” he says.

And many foundations provide too little support to train their own program officers responsible for making grants, he says.

Grantmaking program officers “tend to be surrounded by people who are predisposed to tell them what they want to hear because they’re grantees or aspiring grantees,” Buchanan says.

“There seems to be increasing recognition of the need for more training and support for the development of program officers,” he says.


While a study last year by CompassPoint Nonprofit S
ervices in San Francisco and the Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C., found a looming crisis in nonprofit leadership in the U.S., experts say professional-development programs for nonprofits fall short of what is needed.

Nonprofit programs at colleges and universities are “narrow-gauged,” Eisenberg says.

While they often focus on developing managers and policy analysts, he says, the programs are “not developing leaders with broad vision and courage and ethics and coalition-building.”

Academic nonprofit programs prefer to hire faculty who hold doctoral degrees but may lack nonprofit experience, he says, rather than hiring effective nonprofit practitioners who can share real-world expertise and inspire students.

“We need kids to be inspired to do something, to go into public service, to commit their lives,” Eisenberg says. “A lot of terrific practitioners are just not being used.”

And with a decade or more of losing strong leaders, the nonprofit sector faces a leadership vacuum, he says.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, he says, many nonprofit leaders hailed from federally-supported programs like the Peace Corps, VISTA and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program, or CETA.

But with the federal government curbing advocacy work and grassroots organizing by federally-supported programs, Eisenberg says, idealism is missing from nonprofit leadership.

“Much of leadership is born out of struggle, and young people aren’t struggling any more,” he says. “In a sense, you have to artificially inseminate the field. You’ve got to find some ways to generate a real tough sense of public service and commitment.”

Wish says the curriculum for graduate and other nonprofit professional-development programs initially focused mainly on internal management of nonprofits, offering training in topics like human-resource management, financial management and some aspects of fundraising.

But too few programs have expanded to include emerging topics such as diversified revenue streams and cause-related marketing, she says.

“Increasingly, as the nonprofit sector has had to change, only some of these graduate programs and consultants are changing,” she says.

The nonprofit sector needs the leadership-development programs like those available to business, she says.

“It should be to enhance the effectiveness and ability of nonprofit organizations,” she says, “to really facilitate change and improve the quality of life.”

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