Investing in Leadership

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Developing leaders may be the missing link in your nonprofit’s strategic plan. There tends to be a sense that “if you build it (they) will come” when it comes to hiring new leaders. We cross our fingers that our mission, brand, and culture are so compelling that we’ll have no problem finding that next executive director or senior staff member. However, experience shows that we have our work cut out for us. A study last fall by Bridgespan focused on the #1 organizational concern it hears from boards and CEOs: succession planning. The study, The Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit, revealed that the demand for nonprofit leaders is constant – “a turnover treadmill” -  and that the largest source of candidates for CEO positions is other nonprofits – meaning that we are replacing leaders with leaders from other nonprofits – creating another leadership shift in that organization. Could one of our implicit biases as a sector be that we favor external candidates over internal? Or are we simply not spending enough time and resources developing our own talent so we need to look elsewhere? One thing we know for certain: while some degree of leadership turnover is healthy, undesired turnover is super costly and a huge distraction from mission.

Bridgespan's research indicates that 65% of nonprofits surveyed believe their own nonprofit is ineffective in developing future leaders. To address this challenge Bridgespan has these suggestions for attracting and keeping effective leaders:

  1. Make sure that managers are committed, effective mentors and champions of up-and-coming talent.
  2. Identify professional-development opportunities that are in line with organizational and individual needs.
  3. Work with staff members to create plans for their own professional growth.
  4. Establish mechanisms to ensure follow-through on those plans, including linking progress on development goals to performance evaluations.

We would add to this list: make sure there is money in the budget for professional development! Additionally, if you are a nonprofit staff member who has sights set on a leadership position, don’t automatically assume that there is “no place to go” at your nonprofit. Some of the up-and-coming leaders interviewed by Bridgespan left their positions to seek positions elsewhere when they believed there was no support for their professional growth in their current position. “Even CEOs are exiting because their boards aren’t supporting them and helping them to grow.”  It sounds as if nonprofits are shortchanging themselves by not investing in leadership (even though the ROI of investing in talent is clear), and that those seeking leaderful paths need to express how important leadership development is for their own job satisfaction.

Another challenge to developing leadership is opening our minds to who could become a future leader. Here’s a disturbing finding from a 2015 study of diversity in the nonprofit sector by Community Wealth Partners confirming how important it is for each nonprofit to be intentional and strategic about recruiting diverse candidates:

We identified implicit biases throughout critical points in the hiring process that explain why staff at organizations continues to be predominantly white. The fact is that organizations rely heavily on existing staff, who are predominantly white, to pass along job openings through their networks, which are often homogeneous. The result is that white staff members are generally spreading the word regarding job openings through a largely white network, creating a perpetual cycle of hiring on repeat.”

Here are some ways your nonprofit can break this cycle of homogeneity as it searches for future leaders:

  1. Increase the likelihood of a diverse pool of applicants by intentionally sharing the position description with a broad spectrum of recruitment outlets.
  2. When using search firms, insist on being presented with options from among a diverse pool of applicants.
  3. Raise awareness about implicit bias among those screening and interviewing candidates, and anyone making hiring decisions.
  4. Check whether one of your organization’s implicit biases may be that hiring from the outside is preferable to developing talent from within.
  5. Review the candidates who have received job offers in the past. Were recent hires diverse? If so, did diverse hires stay the course, or leave employment shortly after joining the nonprofit? If they are leaving, your nonprofit’s challenge may not be hiring diverse candidates, but keeping them!
  6. At least one study has shown that charitable nonprofits tend to hire from the outside, rather than from within, for CEO/executive director positions. Is your organization overlooking anyone?
  7. Do exit interviews reveal information that employees felt supported in their professional journeys? If not, it may be time to develop a mentor/mentee system and/or re-think the organization’s commitment to professional development.

After conducting its study of the Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit, Bridgespan’s next step was to gather resources for nonprofits to use to develop the next generation of nonprofit leaders. The Nonprofit Leadership Development Toolkit offers tips, tools, and actionable next steps for staff or board members. Start using the toolkit.

And don't overlook a terrific companion to the toolkit: the professional development programs available through your state association of nonprofits.  


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