The nonprofit sector is at a major crossroads. After years of humming along at a familiar pace of ongoing programs, stable leadership, and status quo fundraising, a new wave of change is happening right before our very eyes. The thousands of idealistic baby boomers that started nonprofit organizations 20 years ago are calling it quits and retiring from their leadership positions in the coming years. You’ve no doubt heard about it, but I’ll just confirm it for you here: there is indeed a leadership crisis looming ahead for the nonprofit sector. At least three out of four executive directors plan to leave their jobs within the next five years and about half of current younger professionals plan to leave the sector altogether. So, who will replace these exiting executive directors and take up the torch in the nonprofit sector?

Ah, now therein lies the rub. Word is that we’ll need 640,000 new senior nonprofit managers by 2016, an impressive number by far, but it should be no thing for a sector with over 9 million workers currently in place to fill those roles, especially with energetic young people coming to the nonprofit field in droves. However, what we’re seeing is actually to the contrary - younger nonprofit professionals are saying, “Hey, wait a minute, we’re not ready for these positions, and to be honest, we’re not even sure we want them.” Right now we have an incredible opportunity to embrace generational change and use it to our advantage to ensure a sustainable future for nonprofits around the country. But the reality is that the next generation of nonprofit leaders needs help, and lots of it, to be able to rise to the important challenge of assuming executive roles after baby boomers leave.

So what’s our opportunity here? Clearly we should be focused on cultivating and developing the leaders we already have in the sector, instead of trying to attract 640,000 new ones. In order for the sector to continue to do our good work, it’s important that we prepare, develop, and groom current nonprofit professionals for vacant leadership roles in the future. The good news is that we absolutely can do this as a sector, and use this era of generational shift to change the face of the nonprofit sector and find new ways of fulfilling our missions and improving the community in smarter, faster, cheaper, and more innovative ways. The bad news is that for young nonprofit professionals, executive leadership is just not that easy to envision. Younger workers feel the challenges every day concerning long hours and low pay, the lack of adequate infrastructure, inefficient technology, and outdated modes of implementing programs that hinder us from doing our jobs as well as we could. We know there are more effective ways of implementing social change, and young people bring the energy and idealism to back it up. But how can things change if current leaders aren’t nurturing younger generations to be part of the solution? 

Pop icon Janet Jackson had a hit song in the ‘80s with the catchy title, “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” To paraphrase Janet’s provocative question for current leaders in the nonprofit sector: What have you done for the next generation lately? What actions is the sector taking to ensure that young nonprofit employees are getting the right leadership development opportunities so they can take the reigns from retiring baby boomers? It’s clear that the deficit of leaders available to step into executive director roles is not going to fix itself. Therefore nonprofits need to be proactive in preparing their younger workforce for future leadership positions. Some ideas:

• Provide mentoring opportunities to younger employees through your colleagues or board members. Allow work time to be used for mentoring sessions monthly or quarterly.

• Give junior employees tangible leadership opportunities such as leading a meeting, managing an important project from start to finish, or supervising an intern or volunteer.

• Encourage all staff to pursue learning opportunities outside of their job description—executive directors need to know each piece of the organization, so let your staff learn, too.

• Involve staff in major decisionmaking, such as the organization’s strategic planning process or preparation for an important board meeting.

Point blank: If current nonprofit leaders give half a damn about their organizations and their missions to improve the world in some way, it’s critical that they work closely with younger generations to help prepare them for the long road ahead. And let’s be clear that the leadership “crisis” is not an issue of there not being enough young people who want to work in nonprofits. The problem is that current leaders are not doing enough to cultivate their younger staff to take over their jobs when they retire in the coming years. And we need to change that. 

imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, DC area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.