October 31, 2014


Managing tomorrow’s nonprofit leaders

James Boyle

Lately, concern about young workers lacking a desire to grow their careers in the nonprofit sector seems to be increasing.  It is a hot topic at conferences, in trade publications, and even among my nonprofit-leadership clients. 

The issue for many is how best to retain young professionals, especially Generation X and Y employees, long enough to develop them into the next generation of nonprofit leaders.

There are many studies that cite reasons, including low wages, burnout, or even some young workers not wanting a career path that looks like that of their parents.

But no matter which study you read, the overlapping message is that young nonprofit professionals are different than previous generations of workers and come with expectations that are not being addressed by organization leaders.  

The management models that many leaders were groomed with and eventually adopted are not necessarily a good match for today's young nonprofit worker.  They often fail to meet personal-development goals and result in frustration for both the employee and leader. Eventually someone gives up and ends the relationship. 

My work on nonprofit-retention issues with young professionals and veteran leaders has uncovered common-ground principles that could be implemented to help manage the expectations of junior staffers.  

Let them make decisions

Young professionals often feel they are entering the workforce with the necessary skills to get the job done. They want to be part of the decision-making process and don't want to feel left out of the flow of business. 

Leaders should actively seek their input on important decisions and then give honest feedback. 

Be open to youthful thinking

A young mind is a terrible thing to waste when young professionals bring enthusiasm to the job, along with new creative ideas for doing business. 

Managers should use their young staff to break away from "business as usual" and to help their organization stay fresh and relevant in an ever-changing nonprofit environment.

Provide opportunities for growth

Young professionals have career aspirations and want meaningful on-the-job learning experiences. Every time young professionals are included in strategy meetings or projects, it is an opportunity for growth, as long as leaders honor the previous two points).

For many young nonprofit professionals, substantive experiences and interactions determine their level of commitment. If leaders create a positive, meaningful environment, the likelihood of grooming future nonprofit leaders will greatly increase.

James Boyle is founder and leadership coach at Higher Potentials, based in West Orange, New Jersey.


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