I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to respond to Bridgespan’s study on Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits because, selfishly, it gives me the opportunity to think about the “leadership” needs of Public Education Network (PEN). While PEN’s leadership issues are consistent with the findings of Bridgespan’s study we find ourselves addressing all of these issues in duplicate: our 81 individual member organizations and the national office.
You see, PEN is the largest community-based group of public education advocates for economically vulnerable children attending low-performing public schools. Public Education Network's member organizations reach 12 million children through a network of local education funds in 31 states and 1600 school districts in the U.S. and five foreign countries. These organizations partner with school districts and communities. Their work focuses on increasing student achievement and success through a range of locally-developed programs including creating small high schools, developing math, science, and social studies curricula, establishing teacher professional development and teacher residency programs, launching literacy programs for children and parents, and educating and building a constituency of thousands of local public school advocates. In essence, they are small organizations with very large missions. And, the local education funds depend upon great leaders to fulfill their missions and their school partners and communities depend upon them to be great leaders for the cause of quality public education for poor and disadvantaged children.
Within the last decade the Network’s national office has conducted research on the leadership needs and capacities of our members and through the organization’s annual survey we gather data on leadership longevity, organizational structure, and new positions. Currently, an estimated 24 percent of our 81 executive directors are new to their jobs (within the last three years). Several members’ organizations have experienced unsuccessful transitions from the founder to the next leader. And, too many of our members are unable to recruit or successfully compete for the top talent to run programs and manage their organizations. And, as Bridgespan pointed out in its study, PEN’s members are experiencing the “baby boomer” syndrome with a graying group of leaders at the top and in the members’ boardrooms. Finally, the entire Network is engaged in strategic planning with the hoped for end result aimed towards making a dramatic improvement in the educational outcomes for low-income children.
For many nonprofits the next decade will be filled with opportunity, change, and challenge. All of us will be asked to do more with less financial resources at a time when our communities require more. Many in the sector argue that this period of sharply reduced resources opens the opportunity to reorganize and intentionally streamline the nonprofit sector. But we can not and should not perform with diminished intellectual talent. How can we solve or at least address within the sector our leadership issues? Well, this leadership study is certainly a first step. How many of us know the information in this study as it pertains to our own organization? How many of our boards understand these issues? What do our funders understand about these issues? And, what steps do we take to address our multiple challenges? Can nonprofits help each other on these issues? It would be prudent for nonprofits to invest some of their funds along with foundations and corporations to build a SWAT group to work with us. The SWAT team could begin its work at two ends of the spectrum: with those nonprofits that serve the most vulnerable and needy populations on annual budgets of $250,000 and those organizations whose impact in key fields such as health care, education, employment, and the environment (as a start) would be severely diminished without focused assistance on leadership.
The field needs a strategic intervention (a structural adjustment, if you will) because the effective work and the impact potential of the entire nonprofit field is at risk. I believe the situation is dire, even. Because of the Bridgespan Group’s studies we know definitively the scope of the problems we face and that the solution for nonprofit effectiveness is in the employment and development of top leadership talent, a sound strategic/business plan with clear metrics for success, and the application of resources. There is another factor to consider: too many nonprofits are run on too much faith and not enough strategy. In fact, “faith” is truly considered by individual and institutional donors to be a critical operating principle, especially for those organizations serving poor and needy people in neighborhoods across America. And, it is an important ingredient for organizational success. However, faith alone is not a suitable weapon against the challenges nonprofits face today.
Of course, all strategy with no faith is not the right mix either. Effective leaders have the skill and tools to achieve the appropriate chemical mix. In fact, leaders know that faith and hope as principles translate into an effective and accountable set of strategies to move the organization forward. Cause-driven nonprofit organizations like my organization are in both the performance and hope businesses. We lay a structural foundation using data and sound research practices, experimenting with new approaches, and assessing progress and impact of the intervention and then climbing the ladder of success on the rungs of faith and hope to the next place where need and opportunity favorably combine. To perform that work requires leadership. And, the sector needs to pay attention to this issue to further the development of the field so that we can serve our neighborhoods and our country.