GVSU Study Examines Nonprofit Leadership Void

May 12, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The nonprofit sector needs to change to nurture the 60,000 leaders it will need by 2020, according to a Grand Valley State University report issued last week.

The report, NP2020: Issues and Answers from the Next Generation, cites four main points:

  • The nonprofit sector will need thousands of new leaders by 2020, many of them from the Millennial Generation born between 1981 and 1999.

  • That generation is eager to learn from the baby boomers now at the helm, but is seeking non-traditional mentor relationships.

  • Challenges exist in nonprofit careers, such as low pay and workplaces unwilling to change with advances in technology.

  • Study participants expressed concern that a lack of diversity in leadership may create nonprofits that miss the mark in meeting their missions.

The report from GVSU’s Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership was based on a conference conducted last summer, said Susan Morales-Barias, director of the center’s Nonprofit Leadership Institute.

For donors and grant-makers, the conference outlined the need for funding aimed at nonprofits’ organizational infrastructure and operations, areas that rarely receive financial attention, she said. 

“Capacity-building for nonprofits is not funded, operations are usually not funded,” she said. “A donor usually wants to look at lower overhead. The push-back really is to look at nonprofits as organizations that actually need infrastructure. Lower overhead does not necessarily mean an efficient organization.”

The conference conducted last summer allowed the 100 attendees, about half from Michigan, to set their own topics and conduct their own discussions. Morales-Barias and her colleagues then analyzed 28 meetings to identify themes. A virtual follow-up audio conference is planned for noon June 24 at www.np2020.org

“In the nonprofit sector, there has been this growing discussion around how do we fill the deficit in emerging leadership,” Morales-Barias said, noting that several major studies have been done on the issue. “What our staff members realized … is we were actually missing the voice of emerging leaders.”

A report by the BridgeSpan Group said the nonprofit sector will need 640,000 new senior leaders from 2007 to 2016. Those attending last year’s conference ranged in age from 21 to 60, and the average age was 30. Morales-Barias said much of the discussion focused on the new generation gap, fueled in large part by the role technology plays.

Mentoring — both informal and in structured programs — is key to professional development, according to the NP2020 report. From explaining why certain procedures are done the way they are to throwing back the curtains in times of crisis, younger professionals are eager to absorb knowledge, the report indicated.

Whether baby boomers are willing to loosen their grips on the controls is another question.

“Current organizational leaders acknowledged that sharing information can be difficult, because it feels like giving up power,” the report states. “However, they see it as necessary for the good of the nonprofit sector: ‘It is ‘scary’ to think about being replaceable, (but) we have to make the most of the time we have and pass it on.’”

Mentorees are anxious to bring fresh ideas and energy to their organizations, and feel a responsibility to seek out mentors, the report continued.

The conference used technology such as a wikispace and a blog to foster continued discussion. Yet technology became one of the organizational structure issues on which participants focused: Millennials say baby boomers just don’t get it.

“… Generational differences around technology were at the heart of some of the most emotionally charged conversations,” the report stated. “Many participants expressed concern that their baby boomer supervisors don’t understand technological advancements and their implications for the nature of work. This became a powerful reason for younger, technologically savvy professionals to gravitate away from the nonprofit sector. As one participant noted: ‘Young people deal with technology efficiently. Baby-boomers need to understand our abilities with computers, Internet, etc. There no longer is a structural eight-hour day at work because technology allows people to work from home, at school, etc. There are different work environments for 20- to 30-year-olds than 50- to 60-year-olds.’”

The report also addressed diversity in nonprofits — not just in ethnic backgrounds, but in viewpoints. According to one participant quoted in the report: “In communities of color, leadership can mean very different things from what it means in the dominant culture, and traditional definitions of leadership can often be unresponsive to the needs and understandings of other communities.”

Another issue, noted Morales-Barias, is the growth of nonprofit administration as an academic field. About 44 universities nationwide now operate programs to educate nonprofit professionals, including GVSU and the University of Michigan.

“More and more younger professionals in the sector really are educated in nonprofit management and leadership, which we have not seen in the past, because it is a new field,” Morales-Barias said. “How do we utilize what they know?”

Young Nonprofit Professionals of Greater Grand Rapids is a new group being established through the GVSU center. It’s Web site at www.ynpnofggr.wikispaces.com include links to a listserv and Facebook site. The group is affiliated with the National Nonprofit Professionals Network.

“It is certainly a topic that’s being talked about and explored on a variety of levels,” Nokomis Foundation executive director DeDe Esque said.

“I don’t think we’re unusual, in that alot of nonprofit leaders are in the boomer generation. We’re on the leading edge in terms of seeing the next generation of leaders bubble up to the surface. There are a lot of up-and-coming emerging leaders, so I think that West Michigan is doing a pretty good job of bringing along that next generation of leadership.”

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