Attracting — and Keeping — Talent in the Nonprofit Sector

7 12 2010

In my previous blog post, I described the Tom Barron’s ideas about empowering youth.  I have spoken to several people about this concept, and it has generated significant enthusiasm.

Recently, I traveled to Boston and had the pleasure of meeting with Mark Kramer, Managing Director of FSG Social Impact Advisors.  Mark has been an advisor to major foundation, corporate, government, and nonprofit organizations and leaders.  He had a different approach to the youth empowerment idea.

Mark said that attracting young people into the nonprofit sector is much less a problem than it was in the past.  In the 1990s, many of the brightest young people were attracted to the Silicon Valley or Wall Street.  According to Mark, the bursting of the tech bubble followed by the great recession has changed that phenomenon significantly.  Mark asserts that a significant percentage of graduates from the best business schools in the country are not only willing – but are motivated – to work in the nonprofit sector.  These people are not willing to work for $30,000 a year, because they want to raise a family and be able to send their own kids to college.  They are, however, willing to work for $80,000 or $100,000 per year in the nonprofit sector, even though they could make many multiples of that in the private sector.

As Mark explains, “the $80,000 or $100,000 salary range is what enables one to raise a family and send their kids to college – with great frugality to be sure, but without sacrificing a comfortable life.  Somehow we feel that people must make great personal sacrifices to work in the nonprofit sector and help solve social problems – however, there is a category between making sacrifices and getting rich, where the rewards of helping others are compensation enough to attract many of our country’s most talented youth.  And the added cost to our society of recruiting this talent would, I believe, be more than made up for in the greater savings from faster progress solving our social problems.”

The challenge in Mark’s view is the fragmentation of the nonprofit sector in the United States.  There are currently some 1.3 million nonprofit organizations in our country.  Mark asserts that we don’t need leadership development to get the brightest young people to run these organizations as much as we need fewer nonprofit organizations that offer more generous salaries and can attract the best management talent.  Among other things, Mark would advise The Denver Foundation to devote some resources to addressing this issue.  What do you think?

— David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation


Broad vs. Deep

22 02 2010

As I begin the Next Decade Project for The Denver Foundation, one of the questions I’m wrestling with is: “broad versus deep.” Philanthropy that is broad affects a large number of people, but in a smaller way. Philanthropy that is deep affects a small number of people in a larger way. There’s no right or wrong approach. We need both broad and deep philanthropy in our community and beyond.

Through our Community Grants Program, The Denver Foundation has consciously decided to take a broad approach. We give lots of relatively small grants to organizations that define their own needs (usually general operating support) rather than a few large grants. The main reason we take this approach is that it is an important niche that most other funders are not filling – and, as a community foundation, we’re called to address a broad range of issues.

Through our work trying to reduce hunger, The Denver Foundation takes a deep approach. We’re bringing our donors together to give grants to help meet emergency food needs and, at the same time, we’re working to address the systemic issues that keep people from getting the food they need.

Most foundations and individual donors prefer a deep approach. They specialize in a few specific areas where they want to make a measurable and significant difference. Individuals and families often have one or a few passions that they want to pursue – advancing early childhood education, curing a particular disease, or supporting a certain art form.

As I talk with leaders from various sectors over the next several months, I’ll be thinking about how The Denver Foundation should strike the “broad vs. deep” balance.

This particularly relates to another part of the Next Decade Project — I’m considering how I want to spend my own time addressing one or more community issues in the coming years. If I am to do this, I would want to select an issue that is important to the community, The Denver Foundation, and me personally.

Future blog posts will address a variety of possible issues in which both The Denver Foundation and I might get involved. I would welcome advice and suggestions from readers. This post touches upon one such issue: reforming K-12 public education.

A few years ago, The Denver Foundation conducted a Listening Campaign. We interviewed hundreds of community leaders, and public education was the top concern among leaders from all three sectors – public, private, and nonprofit.

A broad approach to reforming public education would be to work at the school district level or the state level. This approach would involve active advocacy with school boards and possibly the State Board of Education. It would involve implementing new laws and new policies aimed at improving student achievement.

A deep approach to public education reform might involve selecting a handful of charter schools and supporting them in a big way. Charter schools as a whole have shown mixed results. But several charter schools in Denver have been extraordinarily successful in improving student achievement.

A deep approach to public education would almost guarantee that a few hundred students would get a much better education. A broad approach to public education reform would affect tens of thousands of students, but the likelihood of success would be much smaller.

Which is better: a high likelihood of affecting a small number of students or a smaller likelihood of affecting a larger number of students?

One wise clergyman to whom I posed this question said, “That depends on whether you are fulfilled by winning or by trying to win.” For me personally, I think I am more fulfilled by winning. I would hate to work on a project for many years only to have it fail. I think I would prefer to work on a more focused project that has a much higher likelihood of success. Is this the right decision? What do you think?