Nonprofits not tapping staff for senior posts

Succession planning consistently is the top organizational concern of nonprofit boards and CEOs, yet nonprofit leaders are not promoting current staff to fill senior positions, a new study says.

In the past two years, only 30 percent of senior roles in the social sector were filled by internal promotion, or about half the rate in the for-profit world, says “The Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit,” a paper from The Bridgespan Group published on ssir.org.

The study found “a broad gap in leadership development,” says Kirk Kramer, a Bridgespan partner and co-author of the paper.

“Promising leaders, frustrated at the lack of professional development and mentoring, are not staying around long  enough to move up in the ranks, he says. “CEOs want to exit, too, because their boards aren’t supporting them, a syndrome that is coming at a significant financial and productivity costs to organizations.”

Among 438 survey respondents, one in four said they plan to leave their roles within the next two years, with nonprofits providing the biggest source of people to fill those positions.

That creates a “turnover treadmill,” says Katie Smith Milway, a Bridgespan partner and co-author of the paper. “It exacerbates the succession planning problem at a time when the sector needs capable leaders more than ever.”

Fifty-seven percent of respondents cited low compensation as the cause of their departures from their organizations, compared to 50 percent who cited lack of career development opportunities.

Also cited were a lack of mentorship and support, particularly from their boards.

Only 17 percent indicated they wanted a different work environment.

Over half of respondents ranked their organizations lower than six on a scale of 10 for their ability to develop staff.

The report says funders can foster the development of existing staff for leadership roles.

Libbie Landes-Cobb, Bridgespan manager and a co-author of the paper, says effective development “calls for capacity investments in recruiting, training and performance measurement.

Yet in the past two years, she says, 58 percent of survey respondents received no funding earmarked for talent development.

Kramer says Bridgespan’s research and experience “indicate that the solution to this  problem, while addressable, requires the skill and will to build an ecosystem for leadership development within organizations, involving senior management, boards and funders.”

Todd Cohen

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