August 24, 2016

Building a Field Specific Leadership Pipeline

The Bridgespan Group helped a group of funders in the field of Jewish nonprofits to take a more strategic approach to building a leadership pipeline. While the findings and recommendations in this report are specific to this field, many of the themes may ring true for other fields. More importantly, the approach these funders took to set their field up for success is worth considering.

By: Libbie Landles-Cobb, Susan Wolf Ditkoff

Executive Summary

In a recent Bridgespan Group survey, only one-third of nonprofit leaders believe their organizations are effective at developing a strong pipeline of future leaders. Yet, on average, over the last 20 years, only about 1 percent of US foundation funding has gone to talent development, with much of it going to general leadership programs that aren't directly aligned with the specific needs of a given field.1

In Bridgespan's experience, we find that the most critical leadership needs often differ by field: in some the most critical need might be attracting new, emerging leaders while for others it might be to infuse specific skills and competencies into existing leaders in the field, and so on.

Funders are uniquely positioned to take a lead role in helping to cultivate strong leadership pipelines in the fields they care about by investing across organizations to address systemic barriers that starve fields of the leadership they need.

The Bridgespan Group recently helped a group of funders in the field of Jewish nonprofits to take such a strategic approach. Over the course of several months, we interviewed over 160 people from across the field to really understand their leadership challenges and what can be done. We believe the methods used and the themes uncovered in the report we created for them, Leadership Pipelines Initiative: Cultivating the Next Generation of Leaders for Jewish Nonprofits, could be of interest to other funders and field leaders as they consider their own leadership pipelines. Here’s what we found. 


The Jewish community in the United States today boasts a vibrant cadre of thousands of young people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who demonstrate a strong commitment to Jewish service through Jewish education and other youth programs. Yet many of the more established Jewish nonprofit institutions are struggling to attract talent. These institutions, which have traditionally made up the backbone of Jewish professional service, are grappling with how to engage the next generation of Jewish leaders.

From our interviews with stakeholders from across the field, two themes emerged about why these organizations are struggling to find the leaders they need. First, like many other nonprofit organizations, most Jewish nonprofits do not provide the on-the-job support and training that leaders need to develop in their careers. Most don't make leadership development a priority. Indeed, as in so much of the sector, investing in talent is often seen as "overhead"—something to be minimized. Second, many Jewish organizations find it difficult to attract and retain leaders. Interviewees pointed to issues such as steep hierarchies and bureaucratic cultures, little autonomy for junior and mid-level staff to take risks and feel ownership over their work, limited career advancement opportunities, and low salary levels compared to jobs outside the social sector.

To take action on these issues, a group of funders is coming together to create a Leadership Pipelines Alliance for the field of Jewish nonprofits. The Alliance will create a forum for the field through which it can discuss the leadership pipeline issues it faces and take collective action. More than $1,000,000 has been raised to cover the initial operations of the Alliance, and the group is already identifying its initial priorities.


While the findings and recommendations in this report are specific to the field of Jewish nonprofits, many of the themes may ring true for other fields. More importantly, the approach these funders took to set their field up for success is worth considering. In particular they:

  • identified leadership as a critical issue in their field and made addressing it a priority
  • asked hard questions and identified the most critical root causes holding the field back from getting the leaders it needs
  • embarked on an inclusive, bottom-up exploration, gathering perspectives from stakeholders from across the field, including many emerging leaders themselves
  • sought ways to collaborate across funders and organizations, to leverage the collective knowledge across the field, and to make sure individual efforts are coordinated and learning from each other

Filling leadership pipelines is a sector-wide challenge, but taking a more targeted, field-specific approach is one way nonprofits and funders can try to clear the hurdle. While focused on Jewish nonprofits, the story of how the Leadership Pipelines Alliance is approaching the issue identifies promising strategies others fields could consider adopting.

Do you feel leadership pipeline challenges are holding back progress and outcomes in your field? If so, what can you learn from this example about what it would take to truly understand the issues your fields face and develop a plan for action? For funders, what research should you do to truly understand the leadership needs in your fields before making an investment? For nonprofit leaders, are there systemic barriers that hold your field back from getting the leaders you need that you should share with funders?

[1] Stahl, R. "Talent Philanthropy: Investing in Nonprofit People to Advance Nonprofit Performance," Foundation Review (2013); Callanan, L. "Under-Investing in Social Sector Leadership," Philanthropy News Digest (Feb 2014).

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