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Wanted: nonprofit leaders

Charities seek to deliver results – and fill top jobs.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2007



Beth Millas has a clear sense of direction, though she's been out of college only a year.

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"I definitely aspire to be in senior leadership in a nonprofit organization," says the young professional at Points of Light & Hands On Network in Washington. Her aim: to help build charities' capacity for "effective societal change."

Ms. Millas is well on her way thanks to nonprofit management training during her college years in Missouri. After internships at United Way, Harvester (the biggest food bank in Kansas City), and as a fundraiser for the YMCA, she took her first job in Washington in June 2006. Recently, she was promoted to director of corporate relations for the country's largest volunteer network.

Millas joins the nonprofit world at an exciting but particularly challenging time – and as the need for leaders is soaring.

US nonprofits have tripled in number over the last two decades, and with government scaling back, they are expected to do more of society's heavy lifting – whether in social services, education, or healthcare.

While a new generation of philanthropists is eyeing places to put its wealth, the demands are increasing on nonprofits for greater accountability and effectiveness.

Yet as the sector grapples with how to meet those demands, it faces perhaps its greatest challenge: an acute leadership shortage. According to a study by the Bridgespan Group, nonprofit organizations will need some 640,000 new senior leaders over the next 10 years. That's 2.4 times today's number. (Depending on scenarios, the study says, that need could drop to 330,000 or rise to 1.2 million.)

Large nonprofits are growing faster than small ones, and as organizations grow, the need for strong management teams increases. But "burnout" is a problem, and large numbers in the boomer generation are on the verge of retiring.

"Nothing is more important than outstanding people ... and this is probably the most important issue in growing the size and impact of nonprofits in this country," says Tom Tierney, chairman of Bridgespan, a management consulting firm for nonprofits based in Boston.

If the leadership gap isn't filled by quality staff, he adds, then nonprofits will underperform, and "government funding and private philanthropy won't yield the return. That will be a problem not just for the organizations but for society."

One answer involves recruiting from a broader pool of talent. That means not only creating more up-and-coming leaders like Millas, but seeking out talented people looking for a second career – whether it be mid-career switchers or baby boomers hankering for a new challenge rather than retirement. These leaders could come from the public or for-profit sectors, or from other parts of the nonprofit world.

One prominent example is Brig. Gen. Michael Mulqueen, who left the US Marine Corps to become the highly effective leader of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, where he not only improved hunger-relief services but started innovative employment programs for clients.

Jesse Wolff, a corporate finance officer in Denver, decided to make the switch about four years ago. He has since led the revitalization of Community Shares of Colorado, a coalition that raises funds for 115 nonprofits in the state.

"I was getting a lot of excitement from my volunteer work in the community, but my [corporate] job was taking me out of that realm," Mr. Wolff says. So he sought out the nonprofit CEO job, and found the experience "life-changing – I'll never go back."

Just recently he was named to head the Kempe Foundation for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect. Wolff is making this latest move so he can work directly on a single critical issue.

It's harder to run a nonprofit than a private company, says Mr. Tierney, who was chief executive of Bain & Company in Boston before founding Bridgespan. Heading a large service organization, for instance, demands constant fundraising, and strategies for social change are much more complicated.

"You don't have the resources you are used to, you have the extra layer of a board of directors ... and you're wearing a lot of different hats – I enjoy that, but it's where a lot of burnout happens," Wolff explains.

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