Leadership Development in Nonprofits

YNPN recently released a great document called “Good in Theory, Problems in Practice” that touches on leadership development in nonprofits (and whether or not its actually happening). YNPN tested five recommendations for developing non-profit leaders and found that there’s a significant gap between theory and practice – this is not surprising!

The recommendations the report examined were:

1. Nonprofits should offer more competitive compensation

2. Nonprofits should invest in building “bench strength”

3. Nonprofits should engage in inclusive succession planning

4. Nonprofits should prioritize diversity

5. Nonprofits should explore new organizational structures that are flatter and more nimble

YNPN tested these recommendations to find out:

  • Are young nonprofit professionals excited about the strategy’s potential for impact
  • Are nonprofits implementing the strategy?
  • Are the strategies having their intended impact?
  • And, how involved are young professionals in this process?

Here’s what they found:

Finding #1 Ideas are great but only if they’re implemented (effectively).

Less than 40% of surveyed nonprofit professionals stated that their organization had undertaken a diversity initiative. Fewer than 20% of respondents stated that their nonprofit had made a change to their organizational structure or chief executive role or conducted some form of succession planning.

Finding #2 Structural change is underrated.

Only half of survey respondents rated structural change as potentially high-impact, a stark contrast to the rave reviews the other four strategies received. Yet when this strategy was implemented, structural change was the most effective strategy we investigated.

I think this finding is so interesting – I never would have thought of structural change as such a positive force for good but the results are pretty cool.

Finding #3 Competitive compensation is key…but a good manager can help.

Finding #4 Being left out is not uncommon.

It was disconcerting to find that only one of every five survey respondents
whose organizations implemented one of the strategies we explored
reported that they were not involved in the development or implementation of that strategy.

Perhaps this is a disconcerting find but are you surprised? I am not! Key generational differences are likely playing a role here. Survey participants weren’t surprised either:

This finding did not come as much of a surprise to YNPN members during focus groups. In Washington DC, members understood the reasons nonprofit executives took on much of the strategic planning, but felt disconnected from leadership because they were not a part of the conversation that occurred before plans were made. Rather than providing clarity, after-the-fact, top-down communication from leadership just added to young professionals’ frustration. Focus group participants thought that simply implementing an open-door policy would offer staff the opportunity to learn about or even add their two cents on the path their organization is taking.

Finding #5 Despite systemic challenges, we remain mission driven.

Although many young nonprofit professionals seem sector agnostic, they are just as mission focused as ever. Of the professionals that were hesitant to commit to a nonprofit career, 57% stated that they required their job to have an explicit social mission. This means over 70% of our full sample remains committed to building a mission-driven career.

I don’t believe that you need to work in a non-profit in order to affect social change. I think that nonprofits need to be aware of this and start to really invest in their employees, not only through compensation (though obviously that’s important!!), but also through inclusion, modernization, and development.

But again, my issue with this is how can we affect change as young professionals? How do youput a document like this in a supervisor’s hands and communicate the importance of these changes? Go read the report.

And I’m curious to see what you think is most important:


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