May 14, 2009

Invest in Leaders, but Don’t Forget the Front Line

In this commentary on the 2009 Bridgespan Group report, Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits, President Daniel Cardinali of Communities In Schools shares how his organization identifies highly qualified talent who also "fit" the organization's mission.

By: Daniel Cardinali

A commentary on Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits

Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofit Organizations, a report recently published by the Bridgespan Group, provides a host of important insights for the nonprofit sector as it faces a significant leadership deficit over the next decade. Communities In Schools (CIS), the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization, has had the privilege of having a partnership with the Bridgespan Group since 2004. And, while most of the insights provided by the report have great resonance with CIS' experience, two are especially worth noting.

First, since 2004 the CIS national office has rebuilt its senior management team with four new hires from outside the CIS network, one of whom was promoted into an executive management position. Through extensive conversations with Bill Milliken, CIS’ vice chairman and founder, we developed a framework for identifying highly qualified and specialized talent that also brought passion and conviction to the CIS mission. We call this framework "passionate professionalism." We know that recruiting highly qualified and specialized talent is no less or more important than recruiting extraordinarily mission-driven leaders who care deeply about the future of the most disenfranchised young people in America. It has taken us a number of years to recognize that both elements of the recruiting process—the brutally analytic process of assessing talent and the significant time investment in assessing mission fit—are critical to finding the right talent for CIS.

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Download the report Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits [PDF]

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Second, the increased need for specialized talent at the executive and senior level is essential, whether at the local, state, or national level. Communities In Schools has grown rapidly since its inception in 1977, now including nearly 200 affiliates working with 1.2 million students and their families in 27 states and the District of Columbia. The report rightfully points out the increased pressure to recruit sophisticated leadership and management to guide, grow, and ultimately serve CIS students from a wide range of cultural, regional, and economic places. However, the most pressing recruitment challenge facing the CIS network is having a consistent and well-trained front-line workforce. While senior and executive-level leadership is critically important, CIS’ core business is the provision of “integrated student services” at the school-site level. This is done through a CIS site coordinator who identifies and coordinates the resources that are needed at each school site. Because the results of a recent evaluation prove the effectiveness of our work, there is now an increased demand for our presence in schools. The report makes the point that to ensure an organization can recruit and retain top talent, it must pay competitive wages. This is even more acutely the case for attracting and retaining front-line workers, who are often significantly underpaid despite their undergraduate, and in many cases, graduate school training.

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