It turns out that many nonprofit professionals have major concerns with pursuing executive positions. Next generation nonprofit professionals are hesitant to pursue that career path due to widely held perceptions and very real issues with top leadership positions in the sector.
And we need as many quality nonprofit leaders as we can get. There is a wide leadership gap in the nonprofit sector and it is only going to get bigger if we do not address the roadblocks that are leading nonprofit professionals to accept lower positions long-term and/or leave the nonprofit sector altogether. We have the talent within our sector, but we need to address the concerns that potential leaders have about pursuing executive positions.
According to Ready to Lead, the top concerns that nonprofit professionals have about pursuing leadership positions are:
Concerns over work-life balance should not surprise anyone in the nonprofit sector- especially if you have ever held a management/executive position. There is and has been an underlying assumption that nonprofit executives are expected to be the first one in and last one out the door. Working evening and weekends come with the territory, too.
This perception comes back to the Martyr Syndrome that we face in the nonprofit sector: that the more that we love and care about our mission, the longer and harder we should work. And in turn, people will know how committed we are to our mission by how many hours we put in a week. Sacrifice of time and money are the ultimate signs of Martyr Syndrome- a condition prevalent in the sector and not easily cured.
With higher positions come higher responsibility- this is and should remain true. However, we need to start stressing a healthy work-life balance to limit the burnout and fear of pursuing executive positions. Governing boards, along with funders and grantmakers, need to encourage this well. Knowledge is power, and talking about it and making small changes in the sector will hopefully lead to a widespread shift in perception and expectations for nonprofit leaders.
The other mark of Martyr Syndrome is the perception that nonprofit professionals, including executives, should be paid less. Whether it the idea that more money can go towards fulfilling a mission or simply that nonprofit professionals “shouldn’t be in it for the money anyways,” this idea that nonprofit professionals should accept less money than their private sector counterparts is rampant.
Many next generation leaders believe that pursuing leadership positions in the nonprofit sector is a bad financial move. Especially when they know they could be doing similar work in the private sector for a much higher salary. Although perceptions are changing slowly, nonprofit organizations need to continue this conversation about salaries and overhead, and start paying their executives at least a livable wage or, better yet, a competitive salary.
Lack of Professional Support and Development
According to the Ready to Lead study, “Lack of mentorship and support from incumbent executives in helping to pave a career path are serious frustrations for many next generation leaders: only 4% of respondents are explicitly being developed to become their organization’s executive director.”
Beyond the lack of mentorship or development within organizations, there is also a shortage of affordable and accessible professional development available within the sector. Most professional development for current executives include conferences and coaching. Most up-and-coming nonprofit leaders do not have the capacity to send themselves to these conferences or can afford one-on-one career and leadership coaching.
(This is the main reason we started Nonprofit Leadership Toolbox- to offer affordable professional development for next generation leaders that won’t break the bank.)
The concerns that potential leaders have about nonprofit executive and leadership positions are sector-wide issues and need to be addressed. Nonprofit professionals deserve to have work-life balance, competitive wages, and access to professional development and mentors. If we do not correct these issues both within our given organizations and as a sector, we will continue to see higher turnover rates and more and more nonprofit professionals transitioning to private sector work.