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You’re It! Reflections on Leadership and the Nonprofit Sector

You’re It! Reflections on Leadership and the Nonprofit Sector

I find “leadership” to be a problematic concept at the best of times. It seems particularly beleaguered these days as a few of our formal “leaders” in the political realm seem dedicated to modelling its absence.

Working in nonprofit social service organizations for over 25 years has taught me that leadership is an essential and powerful part of what makes our sector tick. In the absence of a single bottom line, we need other rationale to set a course and make some headway in our many quests to enhance wellbeing. Leadership is the fuel that lends focus to our efforts. Without leadership we may have much passion and good intentions, but limited capacity to harness such assets.

Though central to our sector’s effectiveness and relevance, nurturing our sector’s talent and leadership too often falls way down the list of priorities we attend to. Some subsectors like arts and culture nonprofits have come much further in this regard, so it’s certainly not a uniform picture across our entire sector. But in many areas the lack of dedicated resources and strategies to nurture our “people power” is troubling.

We know that over half of executive directors plan to leave their current positions within the next four years, yet most organizations don’t have any succession plan in place. We also know that many people leading organizations today grew into their roles over time learning much on the fly – sometimes with mentoring and support, but often just by being thrown into new challenges. Will our new leaders be able to do the same?

When I began working in our sector there were more rungs in the hierarchy of organizations that I could use as stepping stones. In much of the job market these middle-management positions have diminished. I also sense that my colleagues had more discretionary time in their workload to share their expertise with each other. Do these conditions still exist today?

Our current training models have not caught up to meet the needs of an increasing number of contract-based workers in our sector. And while organizations struggle to find qualified staff, large numbers of individuals are unemployed or underemployed as they look for work in the sector. There seems to be a serious mismatch.

We need strategies to better understand and address our leadership challenges.

That is what sector leaders are trying to put in place through ONN’s Labour Force Constellation. Building on years of collaboration and analysis, labour market research is currently being conducted with a sector-wide survey asking senior leaders of nonprofits (with paid staff) what they’re experiencing on the ground. What skills will future leaders need? Are they ready? Is the focus for executive directors and senior managers changing?

This is a new experiment, and it will take many people and organizations- from arts, sports, social services, the environment, and more subsectors, from Sioux Lookout to Chatham to Cornwall and across the province- to make it work.

Results of the research phase will be released at ONN’s annual conference this September and the data will be used to shape a strategy for pilot projects into 2014- 2015.

We don’t intend to duplicate or displace anyone’s efforts in this space – but hope to connect and amplify our sector-level capacity in ways that assist organizations to engage in leadership development efforts that suit their needs.

Through the years our sector has developed both strong leaders and effective models for collaborative leadership. This has given us the capacity to make critical contributions to our province’s wellbeing – in areas of innovation, job creation, and improving the economic and social health of our communities.

We are entering into a period when our sector may be relied upon to excel on more and more fronts. We need to make sure that our support for tomorrow’s leaders and leadership goes beyond, “Tag, you’re it!”.

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How does this issue affect your nonprofit? Are leadership trends the same in your region?

Editor’s note:

Results from the ONN Looking Ahead Leadership survey will be released at the ONN Conference in September and shared broadly with the sector.

Update: You can read the executive summary here (PDF). The full report will be released at the end of October.


Rob Howarth
Rob Howarth

For the past thirty years Rob has worked in and with a number of Toronto’s non-profit community organizations. He is currently the part-time Executive Director of the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres (TNC). His work with TNC supports the collective capacity building and policy efforts of an association of thirty-one multi-service community agencies located across the city. Rob is also a policy advisory committee member of the Ontario Nonprofit Network, and a founding board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness. Through this work and his varied community research, facilitation and mobilization activities Rob has helped to articulate the opportunities and challenges facing Toronto's non-profit community sector, and has advocated for related reforms. He is particularly interested in the various ways in which community members may be supported to play a central role in creating a more equitable and inclusive society.