Talent? Leadership? Really, it is all about Culture

Imagine the NYSE telling Mark Zuckerberg that he is a NextGen and will simply have to wait until he is old enough to have an IPO for Facebook. Of course they will provide a mentor and a 6-month training program of seminars and peer learning experiences in preparation, after which the established c-suite leaders would pass judgment on his eventual suitability to join them.


By Richard Marker

Did you know that in the philanthropy and nonprofit world we have no followers, only leaders? How else can one explain that every community, every organization, every affinity group, and who knows how many others recruit actively for their leadership training/development programs?

Given all of these leadership programs, it makes one wonder whom they are leading? And how many of these leaders were actually elected as leaders by the very people they are supposed to lead? Or, perhaps, how many have been designated as “leaders” because a program or organization would like them to become leaders and successors to current leaders – some day? How many of those volunteers were designated for these programs, not because of their demonstrated leadership assets but because they have the financial assets to make them desirable future board members? And how many of the professional directed programs always seem to select the very same people who were already selected and trained and funded by other organizations and programs?

The most striking evidence that too many of these programs are either flawed, or at least mislabeled, is the hue and cry about the current and future leadership vacuum in the entire philanthropy and nonprofit sector.

But can it be true that there is a paucity of capable leaders in an entire sector? Can it really be that all of these well funded programs, national and local, are inadequate? And is it credible that, for all the many thousands of highly motivated, intelligent, capable employees, only a tiny few have demonstrated the talent for “leadership”? Isn’t it possible, indeed quite likely, that something else is going on. Let’s see …

1. Traditionally, the nonprofit sector has trained its professionals for careers in the sector, on the assumption that one will spend ones professional time in the sector and work ones way up a career ladder. However, that bears scant relationship to the way talented people’s work life works these days. Once upon a time, people entered a field and stayed. Today people go in and out of sectors – a nonprofit professional one year, a private sector one the next, a volunteer leader along the way. Any program built on old assumptions of sector boundaries is bound to come up short. Frankly, I think this inter-sector commuting is to be encouraged and is likely to strengthen both the for- and not-for-profit sectors.

2. For that matter, any organization which treats its staff as if they owe long term fealty 24/7 and assumes that those very staff people intend to remain for 10, 15, 20 years, is delusional. [Ok, maybe not delusional, just out of date.] Most workers – and their supervisors – are always contemplating their next stop, and they will be thinking that way even if an employer mandates loyalty. Indeed such overt expectations of loyalty probably hasten turnover, and most assuredly will guarantee that employees will try to keep their career ambitions secret and under wraps. I firmly believe that supervisors and executives who openly acknowledge transiency will find their staff more likely to remain longer, will be more open about how to frame job descriptions in a more productive way, and are likely to lead to greater professional collaborations. [When I was an executive/supervisor/ceo, I would offer to help everyone who reported to me to update his or her resume every year. Everyone knew that I wasn’t trying to give a subversive message to leave, so colleagues were always very straight. Amazing what I learned, and how easy it was to adjust job assignments to meet emerging and evolving professional interests!]

3. Sadly, one still hears old-fashioned canards that those in the nonprofit world don’t work as hard as those in the for-profit sector, or that if they were really talented, they would be in more financially remunerative fields. Worse, there are still those who assume that a nonprofit career should be the equivalent of a vow of poverty. “Why are you asking for a more competitive salary, or fringes? You chose to work in the sector; you shouldn’t expect more.” It is simply counterproductive and wrong. So let’s be clear: Only boards and funders of nonprofits can make sure that these destructive myths are laid to rest and that staff are properly recognized and compensated.

4. The flip side is another canard, just as pernicious – that too many in this sector are getting rich, with bloated overhead and nothing to show for it. They cite the periodic “revelations” of $million nonprofit salaries implying that nonprofit leaders are abusing charitable dollars if they receive such munificence. Why, some ask, support a sector which is so frivolous with hard earned contributions? As I have previously written and lectured in numerous places, I feel that this is a fake issue, reinforced by the information gathered by 990’s that only asks for info on the 5 highest paid employees. Frankly, I care more about the lowest paid than the highest paid. If a nonprofit is underpaying its employees or denying them appropriate benefits, that is much worse than overpaying a few senior executives. As suggested in #3 above, only funders and boards can insist that this change.

5. Another area which has garnered a good deal of attention lately is investing in talent. [e.g., Talent Philanthropy] Advocates argue, correctly, that the nonprofit world is shortsighted in seeing training and professional development as a luxury, or a special benefit only for the highest achievers. These advocates demonstrate that under-investing in staff abbreviates tenure, leads to greater dissatisfaction, and incrementally lowers performance. However, there has been a missing ingredient in the arguments of most of these advocates Most have not addressed the structural underpinning of why this is so hard to implement consistently over time and throughout the sector: if staff training, conference attendance, etc. are viewed as an independent expense line, those lines are the most vulnerable at budget times. I have always argued [and, I am proud to say, implemented when I was still a senior executive in the field] that staff training should be a non-negotiable part of the benefits package of every employee, in much the same way as health, retirement, vacation, etc. should be. Unless such a commitment is built into the way in which professional employees are paid, and the budget is structured accordingly, this will constantly be an uphill battle at budget time and will require constant advocacy with all too sporadic successes.

6. Which brings me to “Ageism.” Typically, “ageism” that refers to prejudice against those more senior. There isn’t much new I can add to this part of the equation [although I can personally attest that it exists.] But, less addressed, and more complicated, is the more subtle ageism toward younger folks.

NextGen – How, you ask, can that be true when there is a surfeit of programs targeting “NextGen’s”? Aren’t they the most favored and fought over cohort? Perhaps, but I don’t buy it. How? I have said many times over the past few years that I really don’t like the phrase NextGen. One only hears it in the nonprofit sphere. Imagine the NYSE telling Mark Zuckerberg that he is a NextGen and will simply have to wait until he is old enough to have an IPO for Facebook. Of course they will provide a mentor and a 6-month training program of seminars and peer learning experiences in preparation, after which the established c-suite leaders would pass judgment on his eventual suitability to join them.

Yes, this takes this to absurdity, but in fact I once spoke to the annual meeting of the top leadership of a major nonprofit at which their outstanding “young leader” was honored. That “young leader” was a 50-year-old dot-com multimillionaire retiree!

All of this underscores an irony. If we are being honest, it should more accurately be ThisGen. Most of the ways in which we communicate, a great deal of the vocabulary we use to describe our daily activities, the technology we use every moment of the day, are all informed by a younger generation. The for-profit sector does everything possible to empower and include them. In the nonprofit sphere they are only NEXT-gen. It is time to stop the self-defeating patronizing of this talent and make sure that there are fully empowered voting spaces at the grown-up tables.

In the workplace and on volunteer boards, there is an emergent problematic dynamic and confrontation. On the one hand, healthy and energetic people with experience and unfinished ambition are often discounted for no other reason than their age. Younger people, impatiently, don’t want to wait around for them to leave, so they leave. The challenge for all sectors, especially the volunteer driven one, is how to synergize the attribute of “judgment” which often does accrue with time, and the attribute of “knowledge”, increasingly the purview of those who are younger Those few organizations and foundations that have figured this out are setting admirable standards for all.

7. I believe that everyone who works at the professional level in the nonprofit world should sit on the board of an organization other than the one that pays his or her salary. It doesn’t matter how big, what its mission is, or how large the board. Of course, it is highly unlikely that the Metropolitan Museum is going to be interested in a second year nonprofit program professional, but there might be a small community based group which would be thrilled to take advantage of the energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm of such a person. And it is of mutual benefit: the professional becomes a much better professional, with much more perspective, after wearing a volunteer hat and an outstanding volunteer when he or she commutes out of the nonprofit sector. Want to influence a board? Think like one and model that you understand what it means. Now, I know that many community foundations and junior leagues have observer-ship mentored programs. That is fine, but that isn’t what I am talking about: I mean actually being on a board, making decisions on budget, policy, strategy, and even personnel. Talk about real leadership development…

Underlying all of this is “organizational culture.” All of the suggestions in 1-7 above are unlikely to be very effective if the organizational culture does not endorse or support them. An organization which talks better than it walks, an organization which espouses empowerment but doesn’t empower, an organization that bemoans a dearth of leadership but in fact belittles and patronizes its professionals by regularly hiring outsiders for leadership positions, an organization that still thinks in hierarchical terms when flat organizations are the norm, an organization that wonders why creativity is always somewhere else but squelches any new idea with endless sign offs and consensus processes, an organization that “demands” 24/7 but guarantees nothing in return, an organization which treats staff as in-service to volunteer leadership as opposed to being their professional partners… Do you recognize any of these? All of the talk about talent and leadership is for naught if an organization doesn’t have a culture that allows for growth, risk, reach, and ambition. None of this is new. All of these ideas have been talked about and written about, and implemented … in some places. Evidence of how elusive these goals and how rare their achievement are, though, are the continuing emergence of “new” leadership and talent training programs. Pogo’s old bon mot still applies: “we have met the enemy and it is us.” Organizational transition and leadership development needn’t be elusive aspirations. The methods of cultivating and training are within the reach of most organizations, often with only small but meaningful cultural adaptations.

On their own, very few nonprofit organizations can make these changes – and make them stick. Only boards and funders can ensure that they do.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.