A child was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to work for the Red Cross. In shock, her teacher responded, “Oh no, dear. You are far too smart to work for a nonprofit!” True story. Ask college students who their social heroes are. “Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi . . .” Wait. How about someone who is alive? Silence.

In 2007, we asked 2,000-plus teens across three states to name some nonprofits. A quarter couldn’t identify a single one; half couldn’t name three. A random street survey of adults conducted by the Community Foundation of Boulder, Colorado in 2004 found virtually the same scenario—yes, Boulder, where 83 percent of adults have attended college. So, if it is true that two thirds of nonprofit executive directors will step down in the next five years, according to a 2011 report of the Meyer Foundation, and there will be stiff competition for talent as baby boomers retire, who will carry the torch?

In 2011, the Colorado Nonprofit Association and the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations teamed up with the nonprofit research and advisory group Pathfinder Solutions to create statewide talent development infrastructures. The impetus for this initiative comes amid growing concerns for the long-term vitality of the nonprofit sector and its capacity to cultivate human capital. Over 1,700 responses came from 75 counties and parishes. The findings are clear: statistically significant correlations exist between capacity to cultivate talent and organizational sustainability and impact. Statistical correlations also exist between talent development and job satisfaction, performance and retention. Yet the path leading to nonprofit leadership has giant potholes.

The nonprofit sector stands passionately behind every celebrated cause and the masses of people who hope to correct society’s misfortunes. We hope for a better future for our children—and the nonprofit sector upholds much of this good work. But where are the road signs to careers in the field? Ninety-six percent of Colorado respondents say they are “proud” of their work, yet a full third say they are not confident their organization will exist in five years. Just 3 percent were encouraged by a counselor to explore the field, and only 2 percent found their jobs via university career services. Ninety-five percent have a college education, but 63 percent never took one nonprofit course. Sixty-four percent perceive opportunities in the field are NOT obvious, and just 4 percent of organizations have succession plans in place. (Read the full Louisiana report.)

Nonprofits increasingly bear the burden of providing services as our economy falters and government funding recedes. Yet, surely, it is not only financial resources that will enable us to provide the best services and run the most successful programs. We must consider talent—human capital ROI. Moreover, talent begets talent. Corporations get this. Sports get this. Medicine gets this. Of the 118 correlations we looked into between talent development indicators and measures of success, 87 percent were found to be statistically significant. So shouldn’t the nonprofit sector be paying more attention to the talent development process? We think so.
Pathfinder Solutions is thus actively translating these research findings into on-the-ground approaches, including tactics for state associations, regional and cause-based networks, cross-sector collaboration, service learning, academia, philanthropy, diversity/inclusion, and development opportunities for younger generations. We aim to:

1. Promote community vitality and civic engagement with campaigns that advance nonprofit careers and increase related educational and professional opportunities.

2. Analyze workforce trends and points of entry to nonprofit work and help organizations bridge gaps, e.g., by strengthening service learning with mutually beneficial opportunities for nonprofits, students, and schools.

3. Build multi-sectorial strategic dialogue pipelines, involving high schools, colleges and universities, workforce centers, economic development groups, funders, and nonprofits.

4. Create broadly conceived and widely executed nonprofit talent development processes that match the unique characteristics of a particular region or cause.

5. Increase nonprofit organizational capacity to recruit, develop, and retain staff and board from diverse backgrounds, with systems that promote inclusive leadership and cultivation of emerging leaders.

6. Improve internal workings of nonprofits, using best practices that clarify advancement pipelines, increase board engagement, and support successful leadership transition.

7. Identify and promote measurable metrics, showing the relationship between inclusive talent development and staff satisfaction, individual performance and organizational effectiveness.