Monday, January 29, 2024

The Nonprofit Leadership Crisis: A Natural Consequence of the "Running Like a Business" Mentality

In Friday's Chronicle of Philanthropy,  an opinion piece by Frances Kunreuther and Sean Thomas -Brietfleld of the Building Movement Project discusses a new study on nonprofit leadership generally and specifically, on barriers to increasing the number of diverse nonprofit executives.  The report follows similar studies done by the organization in 2016 and 2019, so it is able to identify some key trends in nonprofit leadership.   The key findings of the most recent report, entitled "The Push and Pull: Declining Interest in Nonprofit Leadership, " is that, despite increases in mentorship, coaching, and other types of support,  there is

a decreased interest in top leadership roles and a simultaneous increase in respondents who said they were not interested in these roles. The report also shows that, contrary to our hypotheses, respondents who had received more supports were less interested in the executive director role while respondents who faced more challenges in their careers were more likely to pursue top leadership positions. BIPOC respondents more commonly faced these challenges overall, though the trend in aspiration was true for both BIPOC and white survey takers. These trends suggest a “push” into leadership roles to ameliorate the issues nonprofit staff have experienced, rather than a “pull” into these roles on their merit. Finally, to explain why BIPOC staff were particularly less interested in the executive director position, this report looks at the obstacles BIPOC leaders face in their roles.

While there does appear to be a general increase in leadership resources available to aspiring nonprofit leaders, signficant challenges remain - challenges that are exacerbated for people of color.  According to the study, these challenges continue to include low and/or inequitable pay, lack of board of director and senior executive leadership, and signficant increases in job responsibility and expectations leading to high levels of burnout.  The report's summary conclusion highlights these issues:

Nonprofit organizations and the sector have an opportunity to address the declining interest in top leadership positions. This means creating more pulls towards leadership, particularly investing in well-functioning (rather than dysfunctional) internal operations so that leaders have the ability to succeed without constant self-sacrifice. Making executive positions doable and adding more support for leaders could address not only what is pushing, rather than pulling, BIPOC staffers into leading, but also pushing Executive Directors out of their jobs. This is even more important given the types of external challenges leaders will continue to face in the coming years.

As I read the report and its conclusions, I couldn't help but zoom out to see this as a evidence of the error of the "run charity like a business" mentality. Personally, nothing irks me more than that notion, which I will rail against at all turns. In my view, this notion devalues the very real need for high level human capital in the nonprofit space. Nonprofit salaries are "overhead" to be minimized because they not "programmatic" - leading to individual donors scouring for overhead percentages and institutional funders limiting the scope of reimbursable expenses.  We challenge nonprofits to do more with less as funding sources dry up and needs increase, and it seems that the first place we look to criticize is nonprofit salaries.  "Do less with more" is code for squeezing more out of our people - it's no wonder that people walk away saying enough is enough. Even more troubling, this view is calclified into how we regulate grantmaking, fiduciary duties, and compensation, which creates barriers to change.  So long as we continue to view - socially and legally - nonprofit labor as an expense to be minimized rather than a resource to be nutured, this leadership crisis will continue.

Frustratedly, eww

Current Affairs, In the News, Paper Presentations and Seminars | Permalink


Post a comment