Nonprofits Need To Nurture the Next Generation of New Leaders | Beth's Blog

Nonprofits Need To Nurture the Next Generation of New Leaders


Flickr Photo by Wesley Fryer

Note from Beth: This year I’ve been focusing more and more on leadership professional development in a networked world and finding myself working more and more with younger leaders in the nonprofit sector.     Recently,  I was chatting with Joan Garry, a consultant who works with current nonprofit leaders about the ways that nonprofits need to change in order to nurture the next generation of young leaders for the nonprofit sector.  She had such a great insights about why it is important, what is keeping us from doing it, and how to get beyond those road blocks.  I invited to her put her thoughts into a blog post and this is the result!


We Need New Leaders – Guest Post by Joan Garry

Two facts. Let em sink in.

1)     The retirement of baby boomer nonprofit CEOs is a mission critical issue facing the nonprofit sector.

2)     The nonprofit sector is growing at breakneck speed. From 2001 – 2011, nonprofit growth represented 25% of economic growth; and for-profits? HALF OF ONE PERCENT (yes, I’m raising my voice).

These two trends lead us to one inescapable conclusion. We need a new generation of leaders.

Where can new leaders be found? Right in our own organizational backyards.

We need to double down our commitment to professional development, to mentorship, and to creating leadership opportunities for our key people.

Now that that’s sunk in, it’s time for true confessions, nonprofit style.

Here’s the truth. We don’t do this very well. Come on, you can’t really disagree. It’s not out of a lack of interest. We all get it intellectually.

But we have these roadblocks that are unique to the culture of the nonprofit sector.

We need to get past them. We need to commit to leadership development and mentorship. It’s absolutely critical – not just to your organizational effectiveness and sustainability, but to our country’s economic stability as well.

So what exactly are these roadblocks? And how can we get past them?

The Roadblocks of Nonprofit Culture

First let me share with you what I see are the roadblocks. They are complex, built into the DNA of nonprofits.

During my tenure as the Executive Director of GLAAD, I struggled with them constantly. My clients today struggle with them constantly.

Cultural Roadblock #1: No Margin For Error

Often, it’s Executive Directors who set this kind of tone. Hey, after all, you’re saving the world! All decisions feel equally important. Our problems go to 11.

Look, I get it. More than that, I’ve been that Executive Director. I’m the ED whose intensity nearly killed my own Development Director.

This roadblock has real implications. Let’s start with staff burnout – this kind of environment is not sustainable.

And here’s reality. People do make mistakes.

And mistakes are critical to learning.

And future leaders need to try new things, foster innovation and learn from what works and what doesn’t

It’s time to think differently here.

Cultural Roadblock #2: We Only Pay Lip Service to Consensus

Maybe I’m being harsh. But stay with me. I’m trying to make a point.

Most nonprofit leaders will tell you they believe in building consensus and involving staff in decision-making. Personally, it’s something that I value greatly about working in the nonprofit sector.

Leaders have an obligation, but more importantly, they see real value in ensuring that staff and stakeholders have a voice.

The problem? This is often executed poorly. So poorly that it backfires.

Here’s an example that hit close to home. I went through a staff interview before I was hired as an Executive Director. Turns out, none of the staff wanted to hire me!  Especially that Development Director who could not believe the board had served up a candidate with no (like zero, zilch) fundraising experience.

How do you think it played when the board hired me anyway? It certainly didn’t make my job easier, at least at the start.

Or another true story…. How about the decider (E.D.) who asked the senior program staffer to generate a new idea for a fundable program? The staffer returned with a great idea, but not the idea the E.D. had in mind (which had never been communicated.) Staffer overruled. Staffer demoralized.

But here’s the thing. A new leader can’t grow unless given the rope to generate an idea and execute. And even if the idea doesn’t work, the leader will still grow from the experience. Possibly even more.

If you ask my opinion and ignore it, I am disempowered. Keep it up and I am shopping.

And the bottom line is that I came to the nonprofit space to make a difference and have a voice. Poor execution on this can feel like a gag order.

Five Steps to Detonate the Roadblocks

OK, so what can we do about all this? Here are five ideas.

1)     Prioritize

In the nonprofit world, balls will get dropped. Your job as a leader is to help your staff make intentional choices about which ones to drop. Provide guidance to your staff to focus on what really matters. Give them permission to drop a few balls. Note: when you prioritize there are VERY BIG THINGS – mission critical things. Flag those for everyone. The E.D. needs to know and weigh in on the big things. But don’t assume everyone knows what those are. Tell em.


2)     Clarify

Here’s an example. How about “I have two final candidates. I’ve met them and I like both very much. The decision will ultimately be mine to make but I am interested in your perspective, how you feel each candidate would fit into the leadership team….” In this language, I know who is deciding and what you are looking for from me. Any time you ask for input, be this clear.

3)     Let your senior staff own their jobs

Give your senior staff members more autonomy than feels comfortable. Maybe you trust them a lot, maybe less than a lot. Maybe your instincts are right; maybe you underestimated. Maybe it even results in failure. But as long as it is not a VERY BIG THING, it will be fine. More than fine. There will be a lesson learned, there will be clear accountability and you might  – just might – have mentored someone in important leadership skills.

4)     Acknowledge and celebrate lessons learned from failure

The best organizations and companies fail forward. They take risks, they think outside the box. But only if you lead with the belief that failure always teaches everyone something.

5)     Look in the mirror

Take a good long honest look. Who are you as a leader? Are you clear enough with your staff? Are you giving them sufficient rope? Do you have any tolerance for failure (Type A leaders often do not)? Be honest. What adjustments can you make?

For me, these elements of nonprofit culture are a real part of the draw. Saving the world, setting the bar high and engaging the diversity of your stakeholders in solving big problems. Manage them poorly and they are roadblocks.

Own the challenges, embrace the opportunity that comes with them and you are creating an environment in which leaders are shaped and developed.

See the stats above. We need that.

Widely known as the “Dear Abby” of nonprofit leadership, Joan Garry works with boards and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan was previously the Executive Director of GLAAD, one of the largest gay rights organizations in the world. In addition to her consulting practice, Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership. She publishes practical advice for nonprofit leaders at


4 Responses

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  2. Audrey says:

    Beth! I love your blog! As a young professional in the non profit world, it helps give me more examples and “research” to use when working with non-profits. I recently re-started blog ( and home to one day have it as successful as yours!

    Thank you for being an inspiration!

  3. […] Headline By Joan Garry| 04/23/15 | Beth’s Blog Read full article […]

  4. Carie Carlson says:

    Thank you for this! I am fascinated with all this new generation / employee engagement talk and this is spot on.

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