You are here:

Rising Young Nonprofit Leaders Point the Way

Posted Jun 17, 2014 04:55 PM
A leadership crisis is brewing. Two-thirds of all nonprofit senior leaders say they plan to leave their post in the next five years. How can the sector welcome, prepare and support the next generation in leading our essential mission-based organizations? A timely survey of young professionals tells us how we can begin today.

We asked for your feedback, and boy did we get it! The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) recently surveyed 250 young professionals to get a snap shot of nonprofit life for those age 20-40.

Take heart: young professionals love mission-based work, and most report great relationships with their organization's leadership. Also, even while acknowledging the significant challenges that come with senior leadership roles, about two-thirds of respondents aspire to top-level nonprofit positions.

And that raises one great big question: How can nonprofit organizations develop successful future leaders? There’s a whole universe of strategies, but here are four simple things leaders can do now:

1. Build mentoring relationships. You can shift your culture without it costing a dime, and it could be as simple as sharing conversation over lunch periodically. Sounds small, but mentorship between established and emerging leaders was the most impactful tool for building bench strength in our survey.

2. Think about your passenger seat. Developing future leaders and weathering leadership transition just won’t work if one person holds all the knowledge. So whether you’re literally in your driver’s seat heading to a meeting or just steering a key decision, think about who could be at your side.

3. Be transparent. Limited time and resources make pursuing even obvious solutions challenging, but ignoring risks won’t bring peace of mind. Younger staff feel frustration when they’re left to wonder whether their organization cares about providing fair and adequate compensation, fostering diversity, and supporting professional development.

4. Plan for transition. You never know what efficiencies or sources of support you might find by making succession and staff development planning a priority. It’s hard in the face of ongoing crises, but it certainly won’t get easier without a little thought time. You don’t have to do it alone!

Read more about our survey results on our blog.

Rising Young Nonprofit Leaders Point the Way

Using a YNPN National survey from 2011 as our foundation, YNPN Greater Seattle sought input from across the state about leadership development in our state. The demographics of our respondents closely matched those of the national version: 30 years old on average, 84% Caucasian, 80% female, with about half holding a bachelor’s degree and half holding a master’s degree. Two-thirds of responses came from King County, but 11 counties were represented overall, with the strongest other responses coming from Pierce, Spokane, Thurston, and Whatcom counties.

Most young professionals have some leadership responsibilities, including overseeing a line of business and working directly with senior leaders, funders, and the board. Young professionals love mission-based work, and most report great relationships with their organization’s leadership. Also, even while acknowledging the significant challenges that come with senior leadership roles, about two-thirds of respondents aspire to top-level nonprofit positions.

We know that young leaders are out there and willing to take on the mantle of leadership, and we know that there’s a need to plan for the significant transition in leadership coming to our sector. We tested five conventional leadership development theories to see the impact they might have in our community.

Competitive Compensation

What impact would offering more competitive compensation have on the nonprofit sector’s ability to retain and recruit top talent?Competitive Compensation

Only 10% of respondents would characterize their compensation as competitive with peers across all sectors, and inadequate compensation was the top listed reason why future leaders feel reluctant to step into an ED/CEO position. As the comments above reflect, there’s appreciation for honest conversations around compensation issues. Some staff feel more valued when they’re more informed about the total compensation of their position (including valuable benefits). Others place a high value on investments in their well-being, like a flexible work schedule or support for professional development—a strategy that has as much potential for positive impact as competitive compensation.

Leadership Development

What impact would investing in employees’ leadership development have on nonprofits’ ability to retain talent that can eventually step into leadership roles?Leadership Development

Take heart: While only 13% of organizations represented have received designated funding for leadership development, more than half are taking steps to build bench strength. Professional mentors are rated as the most effective professional development activity. Peer networks and support for continuing education/skills development through formal education programs or workshops are also seen as effective tools to develop leadership potential and retain talent.

Financial constraints sometimes make investing in some of these strategies more difficult, but some forms of leadership development can be done with little to no added cost and can be initiated by anyone in any position. It could be as simple as tapping into your local YNPN chapter.

Succession Planning

What impact would engaging in succession planning have on nonprofits’ ability to position themselves for effective leadership transitions?Succession Planning

Significant leadership transition in our sector is coming, with two-thirds of EDs reporting that they expect to leave in the next five years. Yet succession planning often falls in the realm of “yeah, I know we need this, but there are too many other demands for attention.” Organizations that wait to start their planning when an executive announces that they are leaving risks losing important contacts and information about the organization.

Ready or not, leadership transition is the new normal for nonprofits. More organizations are engaging in succession planning activities (20% in our survey vs. 12% in the YNPN National survey from 2011), but even simpler strategies like engaging cross-generational work groups in problem solving work are almost totally overlooked.


What impact would prioritizing diversity have on nonprofits’ ability to more effectively live their missions and serve their communities?Diversity

If there’s one area that stands out as a red flag between our statewide survey and the data from YNPN national, it’s this. Our respondents saw diversity as a more significant tool for impact, and we see our organizations as much less diverse. The study looked at diversity in age, gender, race and expertise in the following three cohorts: board, all staff, and management team.Is your organization diverse

There wasn’t a single cohort group in our survey that was considered diverse or very diverse by a majority of respondents, and the positions of authority rank lowest in perceived diversity. Diverse perspectives strengthen nonprofits’ abilities to meet their missions and work within people of all ages and with diverse communities, but most Washington State nonprofits are not diverse. Few respondents reported that they are engaged in organization-wide efforts around greater inclusion.

Rethinking Leadership Structures

What impact would moving away from traditional organizational structures and chief executive roles have on nonprofits’ ability to achieve results and improve morale?Rethinking Leadership Structures

A real disconnect exists between the acknowledgment that senior leaders are overworked, underpaid, and have unrealistic expectations to meet and a lack of strategies and examples to rethink leadership structures to remove some of these challenges.

About 1 in 5 organizations are making changes to have a less hierarchical structure, with the most common being a shift in responsibilities from the CEO/ED to a management team. It’s rarer to find organizations utilizing a co-director structure, but organizations who have taken steps to revamp their leadership structure at any level have found it to be an effective tool.


Nonprofits have access to a huge pool of future leaders who are well-educated and passionate about the sector. Both emerging and established leaders share responsibility for successful transitions, and it’s in all of our best interests to take action now to prepare for planned and unplanned transitions in key leaders. Building connections within your workplace or sub-sector can be valuable and doesn’t even need to cost anything. Having open conversations (even if they’re about an unpleasant aspect of your work) may end up yielding surprising results for problem-solving and team-building.

Above all, we can no longer ignore the large-scale leadership transition that is coming. Funders, board members and current leaders will be more successful in navigating change if they engage the talent and new perspective of young professionals.