Nonprofit Leadership -- What Crisis?

A generation of nonprofit executives will retire over the next decade (present company included). How will we ready our replacements? How will we compensate them, when industry pays its leaders so much more? The March 6th issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy bemoaned these questions, and the popular press has had a heyday beating this drum.

Let's get real. How in the world did the Baby Boomers manage to replace the nonprofit leaders of the Greatest Generation? Aren't we currently underpaid as executives? Why aren't our nonprofits currently in a leadership crisis?

A similar wail of woe is heard in last week's Richmond Times-Dispatch. A generation of arts supporters, generally people up in age, will one day pass on. How will we replace them as donors? Does anyone stop to listen to themselves? How did we manage to replace the last generation of aging arts supporters, and hasn't overall giving to the arts continued to increase like other forms of giving?

Each generation, in my view, is guilty of an aggrandized sense of self-importance. I enjoy chances to be a contrarian, but frankly this is a soft ball issue. Look at the facts. Each succeeding generation in modern times has brought fresh ideas and energy to lead and support worthy charitable causes. Each generation has groomed leaders for whom the daily satisfaction of making the community a better place in which to live outweighs industry's higher pay scale.

And, yes, there is a Darwinian aspect to leadership and donor succession. Those who do a good job of it survive, and those that do not fade away. Is survival of the fittest a crisis?

Yes, we need good leadership programs like Leadership Metro Richmond. Yes, we need foundations like Mott and universities like Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond to provide good executive training. Yes, we need to cultivate younger donors.

But, NO, this is not a crisis! Preparing new leaders and new donors to replace those of the present generation is JOB ONE. It is the most critical aspect of a leader's work plan. It always has been, and it always will be. Whining about how hard it is to do one's job as a leader is unbecoming of the term, "leader."

Robert Thalhimer

Posted at 1:49 AM, Apr 08, 2008 in Nonprofit Management | Permalink | Comments (1)


Certainly there doesn't need to be a crisis in nonprofit leadership: pay employees adequately and you'll have plenty of employees. And certainly the Boomer (my) generation suffers from an inflated sense of its own irreplaceability. But Mr. Thalheimer neglects two demographic shifts which have indeed made it more difficult to find successors for this generation of nonprofit leaders: the dramatic growth in the sector, so that more leaders are needed, and the significant decline in the number of women willing to work for free or nothing. This latter change means that nonprofits accustomed to finding cheap leaders and free followers--or to making up for the expense of leaders by not paying followers--must retool to attract people who expect to be treated and paid as professionals, at all levels of the agency.

Posted by: Nonprofiteer