August 11, 2020

Nonprofit Leadership Trends–Then & Now

Ten years ago, nonprofit leadership was trending towards a reckoning.

On March 19, 2009, Janet L. Johnson, associate director for Nonprofit Studies at Georgia State University, published  “The Nonprofit Leadership Deficit: A Case for More Optimism” in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. Her article called out then-recent headlines predicting a future predicament for nonprofit organizations, as statistics showed that the baby boomers in leadership positions were about to retire. Johnson, however, illuminated some issues with these forecasts by using a theoretical framework of supply and demand for nonprofit executives. She argued that market and organizational adjustments, such as higher executive pay, board and volunteer skill sharing, and different forms of giving, would help mitigate the decline in workforce numbers. In short, Johnson called for optimism.

Has her theory held true over the past ten years?

Nonprofit Leadership Trends of the Past Decade

For the most part, yes. The nonprofit field has evolved substantially over the last decade, particularly in terms of adapting to new technologies and introducing more streamlined leadership structures.

The introduction of new software has been instrumental in organizing and sustaining organizations. According to the 2019 Nonprofit Leadership Impact Study, 82% of all nonprofits are now using some sort of donor management to assist in advancement efforts, while 85% are using an accounting software to manage daily finances. However, while technology has assisted in some efforts, there is still room to grow. For instance, 45% of organizations stated that less than 20% of their donations came to them virtually, despite the emergence of established online giving pushes like Giving Tuesday.

In terms of streamlined leadership structure, the Sustainable Economics Law Center (SELC) has found success in implementing a particular model: worker self-directed nonprofits. This method sees all employees take ownership of the nonprofit, therefore empowering them to “influence the programs in which they work, the conditions of their workplace, their own career paths, and the direction of the organization as a whole.”

In this set-up, the influence of the executive director (and the relationship to the board) shifts, allowing for more resilience in changes to leadership. The SELC said that organizations who have implemented worker self-directed models “are more effective at advancing their mission, more adaptable and responsive to complex systems, more accountable to their communities, and more fun.” Organizations are also able to attract a younger workforce, as “many younger people express frustration over top-down decision making, overly hierarchical structures, poor communication, lack of transparency around decision making, a culture of sacrifice, and resistance to change.”

Trends of the Next Decade

While the industry has greatly evolved since Janet L. Johnson’s article was published, can we keep optimistic about the next ten years of nonprofit leadership? What nonprofit leadership trends can we expect in the next decade?

The Modern Nonprofit says absolutely, though the next generation of leaders is going to look different than what some are used to. For instance, future executives will need different skill sets than before, including traits such as emotional intelligence and flexibility, in addition to more widely accepted requirements such as fundraising and leadership experience. And, since millennials will make up 75% of the workforce in fewer than 10 years, organizations must understand that the workplace might look very different. Updated technology, creative workspaces and flexible hours might all be standard in nonprofit leadership just a few years from now.

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