By Elizabeth Schwan-Rosenwald, Chief External Relations Officer
Bridgespan has estimated that by 2023 nonprofit leadership will have turned over 100%. The turnover is not due to a mass retirement of Baby Boomers as initially projected. Instead, it is driven by a combination of factors including staff movement to another nonprofit, termination, and a decision to switch sectors. This flood of talent must stop, especially since 40% of external executive hires fail in the first 18 months. In addition, the sector reports an astounding 87% of nonprofit Executive Directors, Presidents, and Chief Executive Officers who identify as white. Funding for talent development has consistently decreased in the last 10 years, and only 27% of social justice organizations—led by people of color—have the funds necessary to provide any professional development for their staff. The cost will continue to grow, simultaneously damaging the populations nonprofits aim to help and the sector overall. In this article, we will explore four ways to incorporate talent development strategies for nonprofit leaders into infrastructure building pro bono projects.
The bandwidth challenge
The bandwidth for traditional nonprofit talent development is simply not there for many small community organizations run by executives of color. New strategies that are additive for both leaders and their organizations, and offer on-the-job learnings, must be created as the opportunity to step away and reflect on individual growth is an unlikely luxury for many. There are families to feed, homes to find, job placements to match, health exams to complete, children to nurture, and communities to build. The list is endless. By not acknowledging that the nonprofit sector’s talent development strategies ensure the continued lack of diversity in leadership, we are starving the sector. We are limiting the potential of new leadership and new visions and their impact.
Pro bono as part of the talent development toolkit
Talent development in the nonprofit sector should not stick to an old script happening only outside the traditional workday, particularly given that 70% of adults learn new information best through stretch opportunities incorporated into their existing jobs. Skilled volunteering projects are a critical resource in the creation of a new toolkit for nonprofit talent development. Already, nonprofits identify a need for more pro bono supports. Sixty-eight percent of organizations state that they do not have enough financial resources to accomplish their organizational objectives. Talent development woven throughout every pro bono project gives nonprofit leaders a double win: strengthened infrastructure and enhanced skill sets. The idea of incorporating talent development into pro bono projects is not using HR professionals for coaching or to provide recommendations on talent strategies. There is value in those services but they fall back on the idea that leadership development is an add-on. There exists the opportunity to organically develop leaders in every stage of a pro bono project. Below are four recommendations for leveraging pro bono as a talent development tool:
Talent Development Strategy #1
The Challenge: Engaging skilled volunteers in a pro bono project.
The Opportunity: Identify high potential employees who have not had significant opportunities to assess the organization from a big picture perspective. Engage them to review the proposed projects and make a decision on prioritization and recommendations for an initial scope of work.
The Learning: By involving the employees in this way, they develop muscles in strategic thinking. This positions them to take on additional leadership as opportunities for organizational design arise.
Talent Development Strategy #2
The Challenge: Identifying skilled volunteers for a pro bono project
The Opportunity: Whether hiring an employee or identifying the right skilled volunteer, the same assessment of skills, fit, and interest is required. This piece of the project can develop the hiring muscle of a new Executive Director, a recently promoted leader, or even a junior staff member who has not hired previously.
The Learning: Staff learn to evaluate individuals with skill sets that differ from their own, they have the opportunity to consider culture fit in a potentially lower stakes setting, and they develop the “gut knowledge” critical in the hiring process.
Talent Development Strategy #3
The Challenge: Managing a pro bono project through to completion.
The Opportunity: Nonprofit executives juggle a dozen balls on a daily basis. They need to prioritize not only the immediate and oftentimes critical demands of their organization, but the infrastructure to ensure increased effectiveness. The oversite of a pro bono project can offer much needed learnings in prioritization, time management, and relationship management.
The Learning: Staff learn to keep employees and skilled volunteers with different levels of seniority and knowledge informed and engaged in the project. In addition, new leaders develop knowledge in balancing short-term needs with long-term strategy.
Talent Development Strategy #4
The Challenge: Understanding and implementing the new resources developed as part of a pro bono project.
The Opportunity:Learning something new and then putting it into action is both the best way to ensure a new skill sticks and one of the hardest things to happen as an adult learner. A staff member can be responsible for the implementation of a new resource and for the evaluation of its successes and challenges.
The Learning: Staff have the opportunity to learn new skills such as database or website management, a 360 review process, or the creation of a financial model for a new program. These on the job learnings give employees new skills while strengthening an organization’s infrastructure. Staff responsible for assessing project successes and challenges begin to develop evaluative knowledge and a bigger understanding of the opportunities for programmatic growth within the overall organization.
A toolkit for the future
The ideas and concepts of building a “diverse pipeline of talent” for the nonprofit sector has become a rallying cry among the most powerful philanthropic and nonprofit stalwarts and their mostly white, mainly male leadership. The strategies being implemented however represent what did—or more accurately didn’t—work in the creation of the pipeline the sector is seeing today. We can’t just consider how the pipeline might look differently; we must also look at the strategies that develop the pipeline. Skilled volunteering is one tool in what will hopefully be an entirely new toolkit for what leadership development looks and feels like for the nonprofit.