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New Survey Looks at Tomorrow's Nonprofit Leaders

When the Baby Boomers begin to retire en masse from the nonprofit sector, will the next generation be ready to replace them? And more important, will they be willing? These crucial questions are addressed in a new survey, Ready to Lead, conducted by the Meyer Foundation in cooperation with CompassPoint, the Anne E. Casey Foundation, and Nearly 6,000 individuals took part in the survey, the majority of whom were employed within the nonprofit sector at the time, none of whom had ever served as an executive director.

Undertaken in September 2007, the survey is a follow-up to the 2006 report Daring to Lead, which revealed that three-quarters of current nonprofit executive directors planned to leave their positions within five years. The reasons given included general burnout and insufficient compensation for their efforts. This new survey suggests that the next generation of potential executive directors is well aware of this dissatisfaction and that they are watching it closely as they carefully choose the next steps on their career paths.

Although the results of the latest survey show an encouraging attitude among members of Generations X and Y toward the pursuit of a meaningful career in public service, they also reveal the numerous perceptions and stark realities that could drive potential leaders away from the nonprofit sector. The majority of the survey's participants had doubts about the financial viability of a nonprofit career, most notably worrying about their retirement years. More than two-thirds of the participants reported that they feel they are currently undercompensated.

Additionally, where about a third of those surveyed aspire to the position of executive director, the results show that many feel they are not being properly mentored to step up to leadership positions within their own organizations. This feeling supports—or perhaps feeds off of—the general perception that nonprofits tend to turn to outsiders for top positions rather than hiring from within as private businesses are prone to do. Another notable obstacle revealed is the participants' fear of being held responsible for an organization's fundraising efforts, more specifically the fear of being held responsible for failing to secure enough money.

As the workforce contracts with the departure of the Baby Boomers, competition for future leaders is expected to increase sharply. The nonprofit sector will have to battle with the government and private business sectors for the right to hire the next generation's best and brightest. So will nonprofits be able to compete despite these negative perceptions? Despite generally offering less money and fewer benefits?

The study concludes that the promise of direct involvement in social change continues to draw in potential leaders despite the sector's disadvantages, perceived or otherwise. The report strikes a strong cautionary note, however, as to the urgent need to take steps to make the sector a more attractive employer. The analysis outlines specific suggestions, including replacing dated power structures, paying employees reasonable salaries, and providing sufficient benefits. Current executive directors are urged to be better mentors and engage in serious succession planning.

The complete survey results and detailed analysis are available at both Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint.

Patrick Ferraro, June 2008
© 2008, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Patrick Ferraro is a freelance writer in Seoul, Korea, and a former editor of the Newsletter.
Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice