I’ve been reading lately about an anticipated shortage of leaders to serve in executive roles in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector in the coming years. Bridgespan’s Thomas Tierney published a compelling article on this in Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) back in 2006. “Today, many nonprofit organizations struggle to attract and retain the talented senior executives they need to convert dollars into social impact,” Tierney wrote powerfully.
Despite the 2008/2009 recession’s jarring impact on our sector, we seem to have recovered okay and are back on track now, complacently whistling our way down the primrose path, paying little regard to this potentially derailing issue. The nonprofit organizations we fund, operate or are employed by need to be impactful vehicles for good. Without well trained, well-motivated, skilled leaders, our sector’s reason for existence is at risk.
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I cannot help thinking about this in light of the tremendous number of nonprofit organizations that continue to be formed each year. There seem to be so many bright, visionary, ambitious people out there – especially young people – looking to make a real and lasting difference in the world. Why is it our sector keeps sending them the message that they have to start something new to have impact? Sadly, most of these new 501(c)(3)’s never get off the ground. Is it merely the arrogance of youth that draws these would be social entrepreneurs to create new ventures, or is there something about the way our organizations operate or communicate that fails to attract the best and brightest future leaders? We need to take stock as individual organizations and as a sector, to see to it that our face is pretty enough – that our guts are substantive enough – to attract the talent we need to continue and build upon our past successes.
It could be, of course, that the trend of starting new organizations instead of joining existing ones is plain old American entrepreneurialism in its social sector form. But even if this is the case, couldn’t we find ways to invite tomorrow’s leaders into creative problem solving in today’s organizations? Countless vehicles have been experimented with in this regard – grant prizes, fellowships, “intrapreneurship.”
The nonprofit sector has a unique power to do good our country. It is time to renew our commitment to creating robust public good for the future of America and humankind. Let’s get out of the weeds of organizational pressures and constraints – even if only for a moment – and begin a path of planning for future impact. Let’s not waste powerful and scarce resources through organizational entropy and short sightedness. It is time to prepare for the future by responding to today’s needs.