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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Developing future leaders in nonprofits

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Nonprofits are the lifeblood of a community, stepping in where government agencies fall short. They provide critical services to the elderly and those in need, ensure arts and culture are alive, fund hospitals and cures for diseases, and support educational institutions and provide scholarships for students.

In order for these vital community organizations to thrive, they must be staffed well. Yes, the role of nonprofit volunteers contributes to an organization's strength and success, but the staff provide the backbone of these vital community resources. Among the staff, the leaders are mission critical staff members. Strong leaders motivate volunteers and inspire donors, while lack of leadership can be devastating to an organization.

Too often nonprofit staff are underpaid and overworked. Longevity in the sector is crumbling. The pandemic put additional strain on organizations already struggling to retain their staff and drive their mission. Some have left for higher-paying for-profit positions. Some have retired. Some are simply burnt out.

A focus on leadership development has become of utmost importance for nonprofit organizations to continue serving the community and to ensure long-term sustainability. Sadly, resources are not always available for organizations to make this a priority, but some organizations have turned to creative measures finding leadership training opportunities offered pro bono. The Boston Museum of Science is partnering with McKinsey on leadership development training for 40 of their staff members at no cost. The Tech Interactive in San Jose, California, has benefited from pro bono leadership training courses offered by corporate partner Cisco. Look around… there are ways to provide these important professional development opportunities to staff without breaking the bank, such as reaching out to corporate partners or foundations who may fund these skill-building initiatives.

Where to start

What else can be done? Invest in critical human resources functions like retention, succession planning and hiring. Recruit an HR executive onto the board to help with these efforts. Focus on hiring those with mission and culture fit as they are more likely to stay over time and to achieve success. Practice servant leadership and worker-led leadership groups providing those who are not in senior roles with an opportunity to lead. Implement diversity, equity and inclusion policies, and evaluate the culture to ensure staff who care deeply about these issues stay, especially those future leaders of color which are so desperately needed in the sector. In short, keep leadership development top of mind. Make it a driving force and an institutional priority.

Organizations must act now. They must make succession planning a priority by training up the next generation of leaders. Nonprofit board chairs and CEOs need to discuss the future on a regular basis. Developing future leaders needs to become a strategy for success. It will not only strengthen the organization in the present, the organization will be strengthened for years to come. Focusing on leadership development will result in loyal, competent employees today who will become leaders of tomorrow.

Maria Pappas is 2022 graduate of the Masters of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University and a member of the Nu Lambda Mu Nonprofit Honor SocietyMaria is a 30-year veteran of the nonprofit sector, having held a variety of roles including development director and executive director with the American Heart Association and her current role as vice president of development at The Tech Interactive, a hands-on science center in downtown San Jose, California. She has raised over $100 million in her career, recruited hundreds of volunteers and is passionate about bringing up the next generation of nonprofit leaders. Maria has bachelor degrees in psychology and sociology with a business emphasis from UCLA. She is the mother of two adult kids, Nick and Katie, and shared her graduation with her daughter who completed her undergraduate degree from ASU as well.

Learn more with training for your organization

Are you looking for a certificate to help you better manage your nonprofit human resources? If so, the online Optimizing Human Resource Strategies in Nonprofits Certificate is for you. This program is for individuals seeking knowledge and skills in nonprofit human resources, volunteer management, change management and conflict resolution.

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ASU Lodestar Center Blog