We talk a lot about systems change, understanding that if built, rebuilt, or—in more passionate circles—dismantled, then that can allow people to thrive, and our society to thrive with it.

Systems are key, that’s true. But the “system” as it were still needs people to review it, ideate it, and, of course, implement it. I think we definitely have the energy for change, but do we necessarily have the right people in place to change it?

Given what transpired the past 18 months, I don’t think we do. But that’s with a focus on leadership, not those that are in the engine room, for there lies the future.

The nonprofit sector is the third largest employer in the U.S. economy and that workforce has been one of the hardest hit through the pandemic. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, nonprofit organizations accounted for at least 12.5 million total jobs. As reported in data from the Center for Civil Society Studies (CCSS) at Johns Hopkins University and its 2020 Nonprofit Employment Report, during the first three months of the pandemic (i.e., March, April, and May 2020), nonprofits had lost a conservatively estimated 1.64 million of those jobs, reducing the nonprofit workforce by 13.2% as of May 2020.

Following two strong months of gains, August brought a significant slowing in the recovery of nonprofit jobs and last month even saw a small reversal in recent positive growth, representing an additional loss of 0.4% over the 557,000 jobs still lost since it was tracked last year.

That’s why it’s important to look at the effects of the ‘great resignation’ phenomena by taking a proactive look at our current social-sector talent and how we can start building a better foundation for change; looking at those new voices, approaches, and partners; and putting them in a position to be successful. This shouldn’t be about resignations, it should be about reprioritizations.

So how can nonprofits establish real leadership pipelines instead of leaking a golden generation of talent?

Firstly we need to support them in their professional development to ensure they reach their full potential, all the while looking at opportunities to step into leadership roles and become those powerful voices, complete with lived experience, that our sector is crying out for.

It should be a fluid process rather than a forced outcome—an intentional, strategic step forward rather than a byproduct of fortune. We need to take control of our futures, not just take a reactive approach to change that is determined by outside forces. Black Lives Matter is a movement, it wasn’t a moment. All the companies and organizations that diversified their staff, diversified their boards, and changed their narrative must be motivated by a shared vision of the future and not the fear of being left behind or overtaken.

Diversity is not just a box to be ticked; it is a commitment to change for the better, a change in which fairness is key and justice is at its core.

Change is driven by people, not processes, and as part of our commitment to forging an equitable and socially just future, we must invest in our emerging leaders, their lived experiences and their ideas for the future. 

Anyone who has met me knows that it’s pretty much a given that I’m going to talk about what I call the “professional cliff face” within our first two meetings. It’s not just for the sake of being a rabble-rouser, or that I have found myself in a state of perennial flux during this decade and that I am simply venting. It’s that by disregarding emerging leaders and not setting them on a pathway to leadership that they can see, contribute to, and in a small way control, we risk losing them as true civic assets to our communities in the future. And by civic asset I mean someone who is actively participating in the progress of their community in a multitude of ways, helping move money for good, leading on boards and committees, volunteering and leveraging all of their skills and influence to make their region an even better place to live and work.

The cliff face in this instance is that we are constantly built up earlier in our career, fast-tracked to middle management by our late twenties, and very active in our local community, mainly because of fewer responsibilities and a larger disposable income. There is a vast array of

emerging leadership programs available to help build up and sharpen our talents, knowledge, and networks.

Then come our thirties. Life happens, we get into more serious relationships, we get married, we have kids, yet more importantly we find ourselves still in middle management. Those who sit above us in senior leadership roles have been there for what seems like an eternity, waiting for their own chances to lead. (They were effectively in the same position as us a decade or so ago.)

So we drift. We find more connection and purpose in family life. We get a mortgage, we care for our elderly family members, we coach our kid’s soccer team. We continue to work hard and try to block out other distractions to ensure we get that promotion, because that will make our lives easier, or so the story goes. The reality of the matter is that once you fall into a different routine,

it is more difficult to re-engage with your community in the ways that most excite you. Justifying knocking on doors for a few hours on a Saturday morning for a ballot measure rather than attending your kid’s dance recital is a difficult task. And when you add the compounding effects of stress, fatigue, and frustration, it’s much easier to reach for a glass of wine and the remote in the evening than it is to hop in your car to drive to city hall and speak about why a dog park in your neighborhood is a positive thing.

I hear about it way too often and, excruciatingly more so, see it way too often. People who, in my eyes, have all the traits and tenacity to lead our community to greatness slip through our grasp because of the logjam of leadership. They move to a bigger city with more opportunity,

they move out of the social sector to the corporate world saying they will be back, more enthusiastic than ever to help make that change we always discussed—and they never do. Because life happens and we default to newer talent who have more time to support campaigns in a variety of ways and are ready for populist fights in real time, not taking a few hours to get back to you as they renegotiate who is cooking dinner that evening.

It’s a vicious cycle. And you know what? When that person above you or that long-serving CEO leaves, they rarely hire from within, citing the need to change gears and bring in new ideas and experience. Most of the time this comes in the form of someone from another city or state entirely. Sometimes you just can’t win. 

I’ll be blunt: Philanthropy is the worst at pipeline management and that needs to change and change now.

In the end, we need to be more aware of what is required to attract, keep, and elevate nonprofit talent. We need to understand how to challenge current narratives of what our workforce looks like, how it acts, and the environment it operates in. We collectively must chart a path to what steps we can take now and over the next decade to ensure that our sector is the most dynamic and impactful it can be—a place where workers’ identity can have both legacy and currency, rather than being made to choose by the pressures of an outdated view of success and those leaders that have perpetuated that view for the majority of their careers.


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