March 1, 2005

Working Together on the Leadership Deficit

In this commentary on the 2005 Bridgespan Group report, "The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit," Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc., reflects on what the leadership deficit means to his organization and how he hopes to address it.

By: Geoffrey Canada

A commentary on The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit

The not-for-profit management shortage first came to my attention about five years ago as we had more and more difficulty replenishing and expanding our senior management team at the Harlem Children's Zone. In the last two years, I’ve watched this situation become a real crisis throughout the field.

Compounding this problem for us is the fact that about a third of my agency’s senior management team are in our early fifties, so we are looking down the road at the prospect of a terrible loss of talent when we all begin to retire or exit the field. Considering the escalating difficulty of finding replacements, we have realized that we could be heading toward a devastating blow if nothing is done.

Similarly, this report is a real wake-up call to the entire field. It serves notice that maintaining the requisite level of leadership in the not-for-profit world is one of the key issues that we have to tackle if we are going to avert a crippling problem for our organizations and those we serve.

At our agency, we are thinking about how we can attract talented individuals. As this report notes, we believe we will have to look at people with management experience in the for-profit world and figure out how to attract these people to the not-for-profit area and ease their transition.

It’s also becoming increasingly obvious to us that there are young talented program people in our organization who could—if given help and support— become senior management. We will have to go out of our way to provide them with opportunities and experiences that they would not organically get in their present positions. We need to expose them to areas such as development, budgeting and working with trustees; and to provide workshops where they can begin to stretch their skill set. These younger program people absolutely need these kinds of experiences over the next five to seven years to ensure they can effectively take over the reins of leadership.

As a person who cares passionately about this field, I think that this report is sobering and downright scary. It is difficult enough to find high-quality management and leadership in the field today. It’s very troubling to think about what will happen over the course of the next ten years if nothing changes.

The situation suggests that we all have to take on an additional duty to ensure that we are helping others to become leaders of not-for-profits. We need to find young people with potential—inside and outside the field—and round out their skills. To create the next generation of leaders, the current generation of leaders will also have to think hard about issues such as compensation and benefits packages to ensure that leadership positions are more attractive.

Hopefully, this wake-up call will open some eyes so we can work together to address the crisis, which in fact is already upon us.

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