Nonprofit organizations are often understaffed and underfunded, resulting in over worked mid-level managers. As a result, most nonprofit managers are faced with the challenge of running a program, managing a staff, providing monthly board reports, helping with various fundraising responsibilities, and last but not least, developing leaders within their staff. Sadly, all of the challenges nonprofit leaders face often prevent leadership development from occurring. While developing leaders can yield the highest outcomes for employee productivity and improvement in the community, this area often gets put aside amongst other pressures because it does not provide immediate results or feedback.
Photo Credit: Ken Lund
I. MY EXPERIENCE NEEDING LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT
I experienced this lack of leadership development during the six years I was an employee at the United Way. As a Campaign Associate my primary responsibility was to recruit, equip, train, and lead approximately 125 volunteers. During those five years I had three different direct supervisors. These individuals were responsible for my growth as a competent employee and potential future leader within our organization.
I want to be respectful and honoring to United Way. I loved working there and am grateful for the leadership team there. In this post I am trying to show that there is a desire to make nonprofit leaders, there is just no time. In no way am I trying to place blame on my previous supervisors.
As a twenty-two-year-old employee my first supervisor provided a good orientation and training for me to learn the basics of my job. He took me along on his work, showed me the ropes, and gave me some basic guidance for how to successfully do my job.
My second supervisor was good at providing clear goals and expectations for what I was and was not supposed to do. As an employee with some experience and skills, this was a good fit for me as I was provided freedom to complete my work in ways that matched my strengths. This supervisor only wanted to know my results and ensure I had what I needed to succeed in my basic job responsibilities. Neither of these two supervisors showed interest in nor provided guidance for me to develop as a leader. In their defense, each was very busy and had a long list of responsibilities which did not include leadership development of a younger staff member.
My third supervisor, who managed me the last year I was at United Way, expressed interest in training me as a leader. Entering that working relationship was an important element in my growth as an employee and possible future leader. When supervisor number three became my boss I had become well skilled at doing my normal job, yet she took time to review my performance evaluations conducted before her arrival in order to assess my strengths and weaknesses. Based on these evaluations she and I had conversations about how I felt that a position in leadership was a potential direction for me to go in the future. Supervisor number three saw that while I had an opportunity to lead our campaign coordinators’ council, I also needed to have someone to regularly talk to and discuss issues with. She was able to work with me on some one-year goals that I wanted to implement and determined we would follow up with each other every three months for a brief meeting to see how I was progressing on my one-year goals.
My own experience of trying to develop as a leader in a nonprofit organization has led me to want to research how leaders in nonprofit organizations can develop leaders. Did all of my three supervisors at United Way want to develop me as a leader?
I would think yes, but they lacked time to regularly invest in that for the future benefit of our organization. Therefore, I would characterize each of my three supervisors at United Way as good people who did a good job of managing me; yet they all faced the same issue. They recognized the need to develop me into a competent leader but lacked the time to implement leadership development.
II. THE LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PROBLEM
My experience of feeling the need for leadership development yet often not receiving it is not an isolated experience. A common problem in the nonprofit sector is the need for developing leaders that remains unmet due to management’s lack of time. Most nonprofit leaders “grasp the value and importance of leadership development while conceding that it is something they do haphazardly and inconsistently, if it happens at all” (Kirk Kramer, “Solving the Time and Money Puzzle in Leadership Development“).
This lack of leadership development is something that might not effect nonprofit organizations’ impact in the community today, but it will affect the future success of the nonprofit. Lack of leadership development, according to Karen Jones, leads to “missed opportunities and organizational missteps. Hence, when the pool of capable organizational leaders is not continually nurtured, the organization may stagnate in the short term and become vulnerable in the long term.”
One might think that since management personnel often lack time to develop leaders in addition to their many other responsibilities, the solution is to send staff to outside leadership trainings. Thus many may see budgeting for outside leadership development training as the biggest inhibitor of leadership development. Research conducted by The Foundation Center in 2011 found that while for profit companies spend $150 per employee per year in leadership training, the nonprofit sector only spends $29 per employee per year in leadership training 1
However, the nonprofit battle cry of “we don’t have enough resources” is not an excuse when it comes to training and developing nonprofit leaders for “the lack of a discretionary budget for outside training should not be considered an insurmountable barrier to development” (Karen Jones, as linked to earlier). Numerous examples have shown that simply throwing money at a problem rarely solves it. Furthermore, one organizational leadership expert explains that expensive formal training programs, according to Kirk Kramer, are a “distant third in the hierarchy of effective leadership training techniques.” Outside leadership development trainings are not as effective as in-house and on-the-job trainings.
Therefore, the goal of this applied research project is not to say that nonprofits simply need to spend more money on training future leaders. Instead, this research hopes to find out the best way that busy leaders within nonprofit organizations can train future leaders. Investing in leadership development, whether financially or timely, “can feel like a luxury compared with investing in needs at the heart of a nonprofit charitable purpose, but failure to invest in leadership as well as services puts the entire mission at risk.” 2
Investments in leadership development for nonprofit staff must be made. Research conducted by The Bridgespan Group in 2012 shows that only 28 percent of nonprofit leaders have leadership plans for individuals to address leadership gaps. Yet, the best news is that 65 percent of nonprofit leaders report that they have plenty of on-the-job opportunities for development. These “on-the-job” opportunities might be the best means for developing future leaders for these opportunities rarely cost additional funds and do while not require potential leaders to spend time away at expensive training events.
III. MY QUESTION
The need for leadership development within nonprofit organizations is clear. Nonprofit leaders are extremely busy with normal day-to-day tasks and as a result only one in four nonprofit leaders have leadership plans for their staff. Yet, it is hard to blame nonprofit leaders for this deficiency as they are doing their best to serve communities with the resources and capacities that they have. Therefore, the research and solution I will present in the follow weeks will explore how does a nonprofit leader with time restrictions develop leaders?