Nonprofit sector in need of qualified leaders amidst change

Published: Sunday, Aug. 5 2012 12:03 a.m. MDT

Dena Reynolds faced a precarious situation. After climbing a tree, the 38-year-old woman was high above the ground and had to balance with a partner across a rope to complete her challenge. She was also relying on others waiting down below to help if she fell.

"It was really scary, and everyone was nervous," Reynolds said. "You pretty much had to put all your trust in your classmates."

Reynolds completed the challenge, with the help of her peers, and now looks back on that experience in Richmond, Va., as one of the first steps in her development as a leader working with nonprofit organizations.

A lack of trained and qualified leaders in the nonprofit sector is a major concern for organizations, according to a recent study by the Bridgespan group. The study found that only 6 percent of nonprofit leaders "strongly agreed" that they were highly effective in developing a strong leadership pipeline. The nonprofit sector is both expanding and experiencing rapid change, experts say, increasing the demand for leaders and their skills.

"It is clear that current nonprofit leaders are not satisfied and recognize there is a gap," study coauthor Preeta Nayak said. "Folks realize there is a problem,"

Nayak said trends show the nonprofit sector is increasingly important, and "the presence of strong leaders in the sector is going to be a defining characteristic of success."

Need for leaders

"There is a big need for leadership training and development," Reynolds said. "Leadership programs create more opportunities for collaboration among nonprofits, which is important also."

The demand for leaders is so high that a doctoral student and research assistant at the new Center of Philanthropy at Indiana University said he receives offers to teach nonprofit management and philanthropy nearly every week. Students like Van Evans also gets job offers.

"The demand is high enough already that some universities and colleges advertise that they are willing to hire us as ABD — all but dissertation — even before we actually graduate," Evans said. "There is a sense of urgency and almost desperation in some areas to get people with philanthropy and management skills."

Not having quality leaders in the sector is a problem for several reasons, he said.

"Sometimes all of a sudden people can become the executives of a nonprofit when they have no training at all. That can undermine the credibility of the sector as it tends to depress the professionalism of the sector. People need to be educated about the legalities of forming a nonprofit."

Still, it's important to distinguish between large businesslike nonprofit organizations and smaller, grass-roots initiatives, said Lenore Ealy, executive director of the Philanthropic Enterprise. The nonprofit sector does need trained and qualified leaders, but a lack of formal training or management knowledge should not discourage someone from volunteering or spearheading a grass-roots initiative.

"Yes, nonprofit leaders do need some management training and they need to understand how to run an organization," she said. "But a lot of people can rise up through grass-roots organizations and provide volunteer activity that doesn't necessarily require management training."

The nonprofit sector could also benefit if the purposes and definitions of leaders and leadership were re-evaluated, Ealy said.

"We come to overrely on professionals," she said. "Leadership means seeing a problem and trying to solve it by being able to bring the right resources together."

Whether leaders find themselves managing a large, complex organization or a smaller volunteer-based program, experts agree the sector will continue to expand and the demand for strong leadership will grow.

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