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Biggest Pressure for Future Nonprofit Leaders: Fundraising

(March 10, 2007) Fundraising is the primary reason many potential charity leaders of the future are not interested in being executive directors, according to new research that continues to underscore a future leadership gap for the sector.

The report, Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out, found that more than two-thirds of respondents (68 percent) surveyed were not interested in or unsure if they wanted to assume the top staff position at a charity.

When asked why they did not aspire for the position of president or executive director, the most popular reason (41 percent) cited by respondents was concerns about or dislike for fundraising. This finding complements data from several recent surveys which shows that fundraising is the least liked responsibility among current executive directors and boards of directors.

“The survey again shows that fundraising is not well understood or appreciated by many of the people who are or will be responsible for it in the future,” said Paulette V. Maehara, CFRE, CAE, president and CEO of AFP. “AFP has a significant opportunity here to help prepare future leaders of the profession. That’s why our chair, Timothy Burcham,CFRE, has created a Higher Education Task Force to look at how we can better provide fundraising skills to young people coming into the sector. We’re also looking at other ways to reach out to nonprofit practitioners who are not fundraisers and provide them the appropriate training and education about fundraising.”

The long hours and compromised personal lives associated with executive leadership are also significant deterrents to pursuing top positions. Four in ten respondents said having to sacrifice work-life balance was a key reason they did not want the top spot at a charity.

Financial Issues Still Prevalent

One of the biggest perceived issues remains compensation. Nonprofit salaries and actual or perceived insufficient life-long earning potential are barriers to executive leadership:  Sixty-nine percent of respondents feel underpaid in their current positions and 64 percent reported that they have financial concerns about committing to a career in the nonprofit sector.

In addition, more and more young people coming into the sector carry with them increasing amount of debt. Almost half (44 percent) had some sort of debt, typically from college, and the majority of students had debt between $10,000 and $25,000, creating further pressure to find jobs with higher pay.

Other important findings from the survey include:

  • Lack of mentorship and support from incumbent executives in helping to pave a career path are serious frustrations for many next generation leaders: only 4percent of respondents are explicitly being developed to become their organization’s executive director. Women are being developed at a lower rate than men.
  • Inherent nonprofit structural limitations and obscure avenues to career advancement are obstacles to leadership opportunities inside organizations. Fifty-five percent of respondents felt they had to leave their current organization in order to advance their career.
  • People of color or from diverse background were 10 percent more likely to become an executive director than whites.
  • The prevailing executive director job description is unappealing to many next generation leaders, though the prospect of developing a new kind of job description for the position was exciting to many respondents.

Despite these challenges, nonprofit organizations continue to be viewed as desirable places to work, and most respondents working in the charity world said they feel that they have meaningful and satisfying work. Forty-seven percent of respondents said their next ideal job would be at a charitable organization.

Preparing New Leaders

The report also contains a series of recommendations for current executive directors, young nonprofit workers, boards of directors, nonprofit trainers and funders for how to prepare the next generation of leaders for executive-level positions.

For example, executive directors are encouraged to: replace dated power structures; help staff build strong external networks; be a mentor and good role model; pay reasonable salaries and provide benefits; engage in succession planning and recognize generational differences.

Boards of directors are exhorted to pay reasonable salaries and provide benefits, ensure robust leadership beyond the executive director, consider diversity when hiring and recruit young leaders to serve with them.

About the Survey

The survey was conducted  September 2007 by the CompassPoint Nonprofit Services (San Francisco); Annie E. Casey Foundation (Baltimore); Idealist.org (nonprofit job recruitment site) and the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation (Washington, D.C.).

The report is available free of charge on the Meyer Foundation website.

The survey involved nearly 6,000 respondents, 42 percent of whom were younger than 30, and 10 percent age 50 and over. It was distributed to members of Idealist.org and constituents of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. Researchers also conducted six focus groups in four cities as part of the data collection for this report: San Francisco; Milpitas, Calif.; Omaha, Neb.; and Washington, D.C.

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