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Leadership for Change

The world in which nonprofit organizations and institutions work and operate has changed dramatically since the global financial crisis and economic downturn began to unfold in 2008. And while the economy finally seems to be on the mend, many of the consequences of the downturn are here to stay.

As a result, leadership in the sector will have to be provided by people who themselves have adapted to significant and substantive change, who understand what in fact has changed, and who are able and willing to think strategically about incorporating change into the operational core of their organizations.

Change is an ongoing proposition. Today, and for the foreseeable future, people in nonprofit leadership roles can expect to deal with more complex and faster-paced work environments, increased demands for accountability and results, the enormous impact of disruptive technology, and, perhaps most importantly, profound changes in the nonprofit workforce.

This is a critically important time for current and would-be leaders of nonprofit organizations to think about the changes taking place in the composition of the nonprofit workforce, the necessity for change in the ways that workforce is viewed and managed, and the impact and implications of change in their workplace environment. Against that backdrop, nonprofit leaders must view the recruitment, retention, and development of staff as an investment rather than a cost.

To that end, here are three things nonprofit leaders should pay attention to:

Recognizing Changes in the Workforce

The population of the United States is more diverse than at any time in the country's history. To effectively serve that diverse population and appeal to the broadest possible donor base, organizations need to hire people from a variety of backgrounds who can share their knowledge and insights.

Diversity recruitment is also important if an organization hopes to build a high-quality staff. Competing for skilled and talented employees has always been a challenge, and as demographic trends continue to reshape the composition of the labor force it is more challenging than ever.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), leveraging workplace diversity increasingly is seen as a strategic advantage. In coming years, nonprofit organizations that have effective diversity recruitment programs and a diverse staff will have a distinct competitive advantage over those that do not.

Acting on Changes in the Workplace Environment

Regardless of the letter (Y? Z?) we attach to the generation now entering the workforce, it is clear that its members have different needs, values, and expectations and view the world of work differently than their older colleagues. Nonprofit managers need to pay attention to those social and attitudinal changes.

Studies (including PNP's own research project on workplace satisfaction, to be released in September 2011) demonstrate that a large and rapidly increasing number of candidates for job openings in nonprofits do not expect to stay in a new position for more than three years. This doesn't necessarily indicate a lack of interest in the position or commitment to the work. Rather, it increasingly means that younger people's aspirational goals are not circumscribed by any one particular job. An openness to changing jobs, changing venues, and changing learning environments is a fundamental part of what has changed in the market for talented people in the nonprofit arena.

Questions about "flexibility," "training," and "learning opportunities" are being raised more frequently in job applications and interviews. It's not a matter of young people being on the lookout for the next job before they've gotten their first job. It's more about an internalized (and not always conscious) awareness that the modern workplace is in a state of flux and that, in terms of responsibilities and skills, any job one is hired for is likely to change — maybe several times. In such an environment, "learning on the job" increasingly is seen as integral to the job itself and vital to one's professional success.

Closely related to the change in workforce expectations is a noticeable change in the knowledge newer recruits are bringing to the job. Part of that is driven by an increase in the number of people with higher education credentials. In some cases, they may have pursued training in a specialized field. For others, it means a heightened ability to analyze and synthesize new information, which in itself is a valuable skill in a rapidly changing world. The trick for nonprofit leaders is to discern quickly and accurately where the particular educational background of a candidate "fits" the needs and purposes of the organization.

It is also significant that pervasive and ongoing changes in the workplace environment brought about by information technology affect both what an organization does as well as how it does it. Today, for example, the need for computer skills in the workplace is almost universally taken for granted. What nonprofit leaders must do to a greater degree than ever is to figure out how that assumption changes the dynamics of the organization. Is it time for the organization to go "paperless"? Should staff members be allowed to work remotely or determine their own schedule? How will older workers who lack technology skills be accommodated? How will the organization take advantage of the burgeoning possibilities of social networking?

Managing Change to Develop Staff

The most radical change in the nonprofit sector is not in the composition of its workforce but in approaches to the management of that workforce. Viewing staff as an investment rather than a cost means seeing them as integral to the service or mission of the organization. Your employees are not there simply to perform tasks; they are what the organization is about. Accordingly, effective leaders invest in staff who not only are good at their jobs but who, through their work, contribute to shared goals that differentiate the organization from its peers and competitors.

In the final analysis, nonprofit leaders who are responsive to ongoing changes in the workforce and workplace will see hiring as central to the success of the organization — not only in terms of getting things done, but also in terms of helping the organization adapt to a rapidly changing world. And the most successful leaders will be those who recognize the real meaning of changes taking place in and around the sector and who truly believe that an organization's staff comprises its most valuable resource.