March 1, 2005

The Leadership Deficit: A Response

In this commentary on the 2005 Bridgespan Group report, "The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit," Ami Dar, founder of, suggests that solving the deficit includes deeper involvement of funders and boards in the development of nonprofit leaders and a more explicit statement of the management and leadership skills needed for the future.

A commentary on The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit

Congratulations on a thoughtful paper that calls attention to the expected leadership deficit in the nonprofit sector, and alerts organizations and funders on the need to prepare for it. We at Idealist agree wholeheartedly that more must be done to attract, develop, and retain good managers in the sector. From our perspective, there is no lack of interest in the sector as a place to start and build a career. This year Idealist will list between 40,000 and 50,000 job openings in the sector, many in senior positions, and in many cases organizations tell us that the response to their openings is overwhelming. We have also seen this at the 100 nonprofit career fairs we have organized in the past few years: thousands of young and mid-career professionals, eager to join the sector and to grow within it.

We also agree that what is often lacking is willingness from nonprofits and funders alike to invest in professional development and salary packages to both draw great people into the sector, and sustain them throughout their careers. In some cases, it seems to be against senior management’s self-interest to address this issue: they are in a position to protect their own salaries and they can rely on a steady stream of entry-level employees who often leave after a couple of years. In other organizations, funding and reporting pressures make staff development very difficult. In both cases, the development of managers and leaders is not a priority, and as often happens in our sector, there are few if any personal incentives in place for senior managers to try to hire the best people they can find.

We believe that there is a wealth of talent within and outside the sector, and eager to enter it—whether young people entering the workforce for the first time, people in mid-career who want to make a change, or people of retirement age who have a great deal to offer. But for change to happen, funders and boards need to get involved, as you rightly point out in the paper.

We also need to be more explicit about what exactly are the management and leadership skills that need to be developed. Ability to direct other staff? Budgeting and reporting experience? Ability to inspire loyalty and enthusiasm? Issue-area expertise? These will depend on what the needs of nonprofits are in the next decade, whether the sector sees a surge in consolidation, continued incentives by funders to be scalable or replicable, a backlash against certain kinds of impact measurements, and the retention of senior managers because they can’t afford to retire. Some of these skills are more transferable than others (from the business sector, for example), so being clear about what is needed can help to recruit the right people, and avoid disappointment in other cases.

Thanks again for letting us comment on this paper. We look forward to working with you on addressing this problem.

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