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Ken Saxon: Investment In Social Sector Leadership Has A Powerful Return On Community

Ken Saxon: Investment in Social Sector Leadership Has a Powerful Return on Community

May 2015

Twenty-nine dollars.

That’s the amount of money nonprofit organizations invest per employee in leadership development per year, according to a study by the Foundation Center. The private sector spends close to five times more.

While private sector investment in leadership isn’t much to crow about, the extreme and chronic underinvestment in social sector leaders stands out. Considering that the entire nonprofit environment is significantly underfunded, this lack of investment in people makes a bad situation worse.

Many of our local organizations already can’t afford the leadership structure they need, nor are they working with the most up-to-date technological tools. And years of trying to “do more with less” has left some of our critical agencies — and the people leading them — running on fumes.

Thus, it’s not surprising that a national survey of nonprofit managers (by the leadership development organization, ProInspire) found that more than 50 percent of nonprofit managers felt they did not have “the knowledge, experience and resources to be successful.”

Add to all this feelings of isolation and inadequacy, real or perceived, and you have the recipe for burnout and turnover. Damaging in any sector, losing the experience, resourcefulness and trusted connections represented by social sector leaders can set an organization — and its mission — back for years.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conducted research into what nonprofit leaders felt were the key competencies needed by nonprofit leaders in the next five to 10 years. Five rose to the top of the list:

» Surrounding self with talented team

» Skilled collaborator, experience bringing multiple stakeholders together

» Place solving the problem ahead of individual or organizational success

» Ability to innovate and implement

» Managing to outcomes and for quality improvement

Strikingly, although there was a strong consensus about the most critical competencies, the same survey showed that leaders rated themselves and most of their peers poorly in these five areas.

People aren’t born with these competencies or the experience to demonstrate them in diverse contexts. They need to be developed.

Our region’s social sector leaders need to be invested in, helping them move beyond day-to-day concerns to greater effectiveness and collaboration.

You can help move our sector in the right direction.

Do you give to a nonprofit organization? Consider giving an unrestricted gift, so the organization has the flexibility to invest in staff or board development if that is a top priority, rather than only program-specific costs.

Are you a nonprofit board member? Many nonprofit executives assume you don’t want them to spend money on nonprogram expenses like professional development. What if you asked management how they were investing in themselves and their people, and advocated for more funding in the budget for that purpose?

Does your foundation, business or government agency award grants or contracts to the social sector? Consider adding on a percentage useable for leadership development to every project-specific grant. Or consider putting fewer strings on your grantmaking, trusting your valued partners to know best where they need to invest to grow their ability to advance their mission.

Are you a business leader? In a recent McKinsey & Co. survey, social sector leaders highlighted coaching and mentorship as critical professional development needs.

As a private sector leader, you can step in to help bridge the gap. Your leadership experience and your expertise in seemingly unrelated issues (like supply-chain management, social media, knowledge management and customer care) might provide the missing piece in the meeting-the-mission puzzle.

Of course, nonprofit leaders have a huge role to play themselves in this shift. How will you convey to your investors that leadership development isn’t “nice to have” but is instead something that is integral to your program delivery and capacity development? How are you identifying and investing in your leaders of the future, and adding to the ability of your staff and volunteers to contribute to your mission?

We live in a region filled with dedicated leaders giving their whole selves toward improving our communities. But, too often these leaders work in an environment of scarcity, isolation and competition.

At Leading From Within, our philosophy and work is centered on fostering the skills, mindsets and connections that our social sector leaders need. Please join us in advocating for a much greater investment in the people of the nonprofit sector.

Ira Hirschfield, president of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, put it best.

“Unless we can figure out what is behind the nonprofit world’s chronic underinvestment in leadership and turn things around, we will continue to overlook one of the most important ingredients of positive social change,” he said.

“Investing in leadership doesn’t just deliver higher performance; it can also deliver a better, more equitable world.”

— Ken Saxon is board president of Leading From Within and an instructor in its Courage to Lead and Emerging Leaders programs. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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