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Crunch Predicted in Nonprofit Sector

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

The nonprofit sector is facing what experts call an unprecedented crisis in leadership, with organizations in the Washington region and across the country struggling to recruit and retain talented staff.

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Even as baby boomers retire, nonprofit groups stand to lose ambitious young employees who feel underpaid, overwhelmed by long hours and demanding responsibilities, and frustrated by a lack of career progression, according to a major study to be released today.

The sobering report, "Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out," could shake up the nonprofit sector, which has been successful at recruiting recent college graduates but not always at keeping them. Many leave for jobs at private companies and in the federal government that often offer better pay and more comfortable lifestyles.

The trend is exacerbated in the Washington region, which has more than 200,000 people working in nonprofit groups and is considered the national hub for the sector. Local leaders anticipate a leadership void could have a dramatic effect on groups that offer essential social services such as shelter, food and after-school activities. Jobs in those fields traditionally have the highest turnover, experts said.

People are drawn to work in the nonprofit sector because of the social change mission and the potential to make a positive impact on the community, and the survey finds that such workers remain deeply committed and inspired. But nonprofit organizations are not doing enough to retain them, said Patrick Corvington, a co-author of the report and a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"Next-generation leaders are finding ways to get involved in social change and do good work," Corvington said. "But they're finding ways to do that outside of the sector."

The report, which uses data from a survey last fall of about 6,000 nonprofit employees, is the largest national study to date of emerging nonprofit leaders. It was conducted by the Casey Foundation, the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the online job site Idealist.org.

The study found that 69 percent of respondents feel underpaid. About two-thirds reported they had financial concerns about committing to a career in the sector, and nearly half of that group said they would not make enough money to retire comfortably.

One in three respondents aspires to become the head of a nonprofit organization, but only 4 percent said they were being groomed for top leadership positions.

The study's authors recommend that nonprofit groups provide mentors and help employees meet leaders of similar organizations. They also suggest that nonprofit groups offer better salaries and benefits when possible and restructure organizations to give younger staff members more responsibility and create a more evident career track.

This could help lessen the frustrations felt by people working in the sector, said Russ Finkelstein, associate director at Idealist.org.

"I think it's incumbent on organizations to go and treat people like they matter, show them that they care about them and treat them as leaders, and I think that's always been a challenge," Finkelstein said.

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