Need for Change

Posted on April 30, 2007. Filed under: Nonprofit |

Before I started at the Johnson Center I had not heard about the leadership deficit in the nonprofit sector. It just wasn’t an issue for me. Now things have changed! Almost every day I hear about somebody else talking or writing about it. The leadership deficit is really not about the fact that their are not enough young leaders, it’s about the fact that there is not enough young leaders staying in the sector. So why don’t more people hear about the leadership deficit? Why is everyone leaving the sector after just one year? We need to keep great leaders around, but how?

I just graduated and some people in my classes, even those that had their heart set about working for a nonprofit, decided to go the for-profit route. There are so many reasons, but the obvious one, its all about the money, just doesn’t seem like the right answer. Anyone studying nonprofit leadership at their undergrad knows that they are going to start off with lower pay, pay that will increase over time, and for the most part, be pretty comparable to what many for-profits pay. So again I ask, what is the deal? How do we keep people in the sector.

There are many theories about why young leaders are leaving the sector. Bridgespan studied it, the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network studied it, even the Chronicle has a whole series about it. Well, of course I have my own theory on the subject. I really think it has to do with Social Entrepreneurship. My theory has not been tested extensively like the others, but I think they may agree.

According to Wikipedia (a very trusted source :)) “A social entrepreneur is someone who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change. Whereas business entrepreneurs typically measure performance in profit and return, social entrepreneurs assess their success in terms of the impact they have on society. While social entrepreneurs often work through nonprofits and citizen groups, many work in the private and governmental sectors.”

While in my undergrad I saw myself as a social entrepreneur, really I still do, but not to the extent I did then. I know that my view, before really learning about the sector, was that anyone can change/save the world. A lot of my friends thought the same way. The best way to save the world on your own is to take social entrepreneurship to the extreme. Take your ideas and run with them, knocking out the competition, and helping as many people as you can.

The reality is that the sector is too much like this. There are a million social entrepreneurs coming out of college ready to go, and they all start their own nonprofit or get a job with a nonprofit they have always loved. The problem is, there are too many people doing the same thing. Talking in business terms, nonprofits are flooding the markets. A recent Chronicle Article got it right. Someone interviewed had said this about competition in the nonprofit sector: “‘It wouldn’t be nice to compete. We don’t run by metrics; we run by good intentions.’ If the city the social entrepreneur was working in had eight soup kitchens, he said, everyone would applaud the person who decided to start the ninth.”

His statement really encompasses the nonprofit sector, so…any new graduate going out into the sector thinks they are going to make a huge change, but find out they can only serve a small group of individuals, because the “soup kitchen” down the road is serving everyone else. With a large amount of nonprofits doing the same work, individuals within the organizations have to work twice as hard. This is where the need for change comes, this may be the answer…

The answer is social entrepreneurship, but in its true form! The sector as a whole needs to come to the realization that they need to start competing in a more business-like manor. Some have already gone down this road, but there are others that need to take the same path. Competition is not always a bad thing. If nonprofits combined efforts, collaborated more often, they would be able to serve more with a higher value of service, and attract more potential leaders. Most young leaders out of college (have I said it enough?) are looking to make the most change and with a more competitive environment, they will be able to serve more individuals, with more quality services.

I want to use Grand Rapids as an example. In Heartside there are two Ministries essentially providing the same services. So why don’t they combine their efforts. They could feed more people if they were only paying one executive director, and possibly hirer more employees if they were able to expand their services. Both of these ministries do great work helping the homeless in Grand Rapids, together they could serve more, fill in each others gaps. It is definitely easier said than done, but the only way the sector will thrive long into the future is if some of this starts to happen and they are able to attract more young leaders.

If anyone has another theory I welcome it! Actually you really should attend the NP2020 conference, where we are going to discuss this particular topic. As a young leader in the sector who is nervous about the path the sector is going down I ask that we take this discussion to heart. We all want the same thing, that is to help people, so why don’t we do it in a better way, our way. A way that is going to keep young leaders in the sector and the sector serving more people.


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One Response to “Need for Change”

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Tera, really interesting post–I can’t wait to discuss this stuff at NP2020. I think this is such a fertile conversation to be having right now.

I just posted on sector leadership–much like you’re suggesting that the sector think like a business in terms of redundancy of services offered, I think it needs to get more strategic and intentional about the transition of leadership. Both issues (duplication and leadership) are critical to the fundamental capacity of the sector.

So glad you’re blogging!

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