The Talent Agenda: How can we support nonprofit employees?

The Talent Agenda is a monthly column where Rusty Stahl–Idealist board member and joint fellow at the Tides Foundation and the Research Center for Leadership in Action at NYU Wagnerwill share his thoughts on how organizations and foundations can do more to support the careers and development of nonprofit professionals.

by Rusty Stahl

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds, Creative Commons/Flickr
Photo credit: Leo Reynolds, Creative Commons/Flickr

Nonprofits employ 13.5 million people, making the sector the third-largest private workforce in the United States. During the recession, jobs at nonprofits grew by 2% while for-profit jobs declined by 4%. And nonprofits are still hiring. As we grow, nonprofits face increasingly complex management environments and endure ongoing pressure to provide more services to communities in the face of budget cuts.

Given the size, scope, and importance of our sector, we often wonder who will lead and champion our work. However, while we have talked at length about a ‘leadership crisis’ caused by massive Baby Boomer retirements, this has not yet happened. The Great Recession and the lack of post-retirement opportunities to contribute have encouraged Boomers to stay put. This, in turn, has created a different kind of challenge: a bottleneck on the nonprofit leadership highway.

In this context, the support of social-change professionals is more important than ever. Baby Boomers are rethinking retirement and exploring new ways to contribute; Generation X is reaching middle and upper management; and the incredibly diverse Millennial generation is entering and navigating the workforce in large numbers. These sweeping cultural and demographic shifts give new urgency to the perennially under-capitalized systems of nonprofit recruitment, retention, and retirement.

Rather than wringing our hands about a hypothetical “leadership deficit” in nonprofits, the millions of professionals in the nonprofit workforce offer an important asset to the field: human capital. It is in the enlightened self-interest of funders, policy-makers, nonprofit boards, and executives to invest in nonprofit talent for short-term productivity, mid-term morale, and long-term endurance.

A new way of thinking about talent

My column on Idealist Careers will focus on how to create a deep and diverse bench of nonprofit leadership talent. I believe funders can accomplish this through a new framework that I call Talent Philanthropy. And nonprofit boards and executives can use talent-driven approaches to increase impact.

The funding community has a great responsibility—and a fantastic opportunity—to support the development and sustainability of nonprofit employees. After all, it is the nonprofit workforce that conceives of and makes real the project and program ideas that foundations support.

And Talent Philanthropy will only work if nonprofit board members, executives, and fundraisers ask foundations and donors to specifically support strategic staff development and career support as part of their investments. If we don’t start asking, professional development will remain last-to-be-added and first-to-be-cut in budgets.

Nonprofit folks sacrifice their earning potential, time and more to advance the missions of their organizations. In return, our organizations and funders should commit resources for paid internships, coaching, training, education, sabbaticals, emeritus positions, and/or a variety of other resources. This will generally lead to increased morale and decreased burnout, which, as the business community has learned, leads to increased productivity and quality of work, happier employees, and better outcomes.

I look forward to engaging the Idealist community to make sure we ask for what we need to stay energized in our work and keep great talent in our field!


Rusty Stahl close-upRusty Morgen Stahl, a long-standing Idealist board member, is a joint fellow at the Tides Foundation and the Research Center for Leadership in Action at NYU Wagner. He is founder and executive director emeritus of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, previously worked at the Ford Foundation, and holds a Masters in Philanthropic Studies from Indiana University. Rusty lives in Brooklyn with his betrothed and their two black and white cats.


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    • Jay Haapala
    • January 31, 2013

    Very interesting concept Rusty. The scale of the problem and its distance from our current paradigm makes my blood pressure rise with stress. Here in Minnesota, I’ve seen initiatives designed to help retiring adults find purposeful “second careers” fail for lack of funding and I’ve seen the government spin its wheels trying to address it. Maybe that’s because they baby-boomers aren’t retiring yet, so we haven’t had the mandate to act – not to say advance planning isn’t ideal.

    The structure exists in volunteer programs to help match the wave of people who want to spend their post career time affecting social change. Organizations that have invested in professional volunteer management and innovative practices have the capacity to take advantage of the supposed coming boom – see What we’ve learned is that the “lack of post-retirement opportunities” you referred to need investment by nonprofits, or funders, to create. I wish I could cite the article that reported based on a survey that 10K retiring baby-boomers intend to start their own nonprofit – I hope we agree that this is not an ideal plan.

    While maybe someday HR leaders and organizational leadership will have the “enlightened self-interest” in our sector to think differently about staffing, enlightened volunteer programs may be a good place to get the ball rolling. I’m certainly with you on the need for this type of funding, but we have a long way to go!

    1. Jay – thank you so much for reading this piece and offering your perspective – I really appreciate it so much! You make a great point — volunteers are an essential human resource for the nonprofit sector. While they are not paid staff members, their “free” labor (which costs a fair amount of time and money to recruit, train, manage, retain, etc) is essential to the values and effectiveness of this field. And this catch-all phrase of volunteers includes everyone from 1-day-a-year volunteers painting a school, to activists who are on the front lines of advocacy campaigns, all the way to the very board members who are financially and legally responsible for the life of organizations. One might even include the donors who voluntarily contribute their resources to organizations (who often do so after becoming a more traditional volunteer)! So your point about how the “volunteer-force” of the nonprofit sector will change with generational and demographic trends is key, because it will have implications for both the forms and functions of governance, volunteer management, fundraising, and more.

      It is a big scale, and it can seem overwhelming. In fact, it is so big, many people cannot even conceptualize what we are talking about. That is why I think we need to do five things to make this a less stressful and more productive matter:

      1. Break the need down into its parts: recruitment, retention, retirement, each with sub-parts.
      2. Think of this as a time-limited window of opportunity for action (hence some urgency) that is not a crisis (but may become a crisis if no action is taken)
      3. Recognize and name the incredible assets with which we have to work (namely all the wonderful, creative, effective, committed people who have made a life out of nonprofit careers and/or who want to join the field!), not think of this as a deficit-based game.
      4. Make it an issue that is broadly shared, with common-sense solutions and interventions that can be broadly used, learned from, and adapted across the country (world).
      5. Get those who control the purse and policy involved to see their self-interest in taking action in a decentralized, customized way that fits well within what they already do or care about.

      I hope you will contact me via my website so I can learn more about what’s happening with the efforts you reference in Minnesota. I checked out the website, but would love to learn more.

      Thanks again,

    • Garland Doyle, CNP
    • February 1, 2013

    Rusty, this is a great topic. We need to stop wondering who will champion our work and just do it ourselves. That is what Nonprofitian is doing. Nonprofitician is the national campaign to champion the nonprofit management profession in the U.S.A. We are on twitter @nonprofitician and have started a linkedin group (Nonprofitician). We are planning to launch a website soon too.

    1. Garland – thank you for weighing in! I am excited to see what you do with Nonprofitician in an effort to further the legitimacy of the “nonprofit management profession.”

      Your campaign may present some interesting challenges. The fact that so many leaders join the nonprofit workforce out of a sense of mission and purpose, and not because they seek to become managers or inherently love management. Indeed some of the values of management and nonprofits can seem to conflict or at least cause internal conflicts for people.

      Your phrase reminds me of my professor Robert L. Payton, who coined the phrase “philanthropics” to create a “third sector” companion to politics and economics. His points, however, was that like the market has both economics and B schools, and government has politics and political management, our field needs and deserves a liberal arts-based study of nonprofits and philanthropy to balance the emphasis on nonprofit management found throughout the academy. I’d be curious as to your thoughts on this. (You can find some of his interesting if slightly meandering essays at http//

      Despite all that, the best kind of I think professionalism (thoughtful, effective, respectful and ethical practice) is key.

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