A commentary on Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits
The Bridgespan Group’s continuing research confirms what those of us in human services organizations experience on a daily basis: finding talent is hard. The staggering number of projected vacancies only compounds a fundamental challenge: Where do you find and how do you develop the talent you need? The answer to that question remains fixed—either you grow leaders internally or recruit them externally.
My perspective comes almost exclusively from the human services arena, shaped by the specific challenges we face in the YMCA. We have a combined workforce of 250,000 employees, working in 970 independent associations that range in budget size from $250,000 to $150 million.
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Cultural fit is important. However, I believe that nonprofit leaders worry far too much about starting with the perfect fit. This is particularly true with “bridgers” from the for-profit world. In my experience, if I attract bright and talented senior people to the organization, I can help them fall in love with our cause. On the contrary, I cannot make senior people bright and talented, regardless of how much they love our cause.
YMCA history shows that below the chief executive officer (CEO) level, bridgers are just as likely to be successful as those who come from the nonprofit sector. Many bridgers who seek opportunities in our sector have decided to seek work with deeper purpose and already are aware that compensation levels may be lower than in the for-profit sector. They are predisposed to wanting to make a difference. However, their cultural adjustment cannot be left to chance. Bridgers can learn the techniques necessary to succeed through intentional training, mentoring and support, provided along with cultural on-boarding that deepens their understanding of and connection to the mission.
That said, when bridgers move into CEO positions, they face a more complex set of issues. Because the CEO is the keeper of the mission and culture, an individual new to the nonprofit world has a much shorter and steeper learning curve than someone deeply familiar with the sector. Stanford Social Innovation Review noted in a 2006 article entitled “What Business Execs Don’t Know – But Should – About Nonprofits” that business leaders “all too often underestimate the unique challenges of managing nonprofit organizations...” To maximize the potential benefits that bridgers can bring to nonprofit organizations as CEOs, we must start with our volunteer board leaders. First, they must understand and embrace our mission and culture. Second, board members must surround new entrants with capable and attentive mentors who can help bridgers acclimate quickly. Without a prepared board the transition can be very difficult.
Nonprofits will never succeed in filling the leadership vacuum by competing and chasing a finite pool of candidates. The long-term solution is increasing the sector’s internal pool of candidates through more robust and sophisticated leadership development programs.
Sector leaders can join in creating an integrated leadership development architecture that will span multiple tiers of leadership and link structured training and development with talent management processes such as performance management and succession planning. I envision this architecture as a Leadership Competency model, within the YMCA or for the larger nonprofit sector. By identifying the competencies required at each career level, both individuals and organizations can manage talent development in a clear, coherent way.
Processes and systems that help staff bridge the gap between learning and real work are one critical component that is often missing in nonprofit leadership development and training. We in the YMCA now are developing and implementing the tools that will allow us to link core competencies to job experience, training, succession planning, and performance management.
Until we as an organization—and the sector as a whole—become much more intentional about development of internal talent, we are doomed to an ever-growing leadership deficit. On the other hand, with a more welcoming and supportive attitude about bridgers and the proper development of tools, we can increase our leadership talent pool and more successfully deliver the critical services our communities require.