It’s a terrifying decision to go back to school many years (well, decades actually) after completing a Bachelor’s degree.  Even more so after you find out that you are required to write a twenty page academic research paper when the most you have written in the last several years is a two paragraph email. So before I let my fear get too far ahead of me I decided to focus my attention on finding a topic that would be interesting and relevant, and ideally provide some value to those in the sector I was studying.


The Masters of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership program is the only one of its kind in Canada and is based out of Carleton University in Ottawa. With limited direct access to resources on campus I considered who in my network in Vancouver would have the insight into the sector to help me find a topic of value and importance in the nonprofit sector.


When I met with Philip Manzano at Keela, he was quick to offer some suggestions. The first topic he mentioned really resonated with me. With the majority of leadership in the nonprofit sector looking to retire in the next 5-10 years, there is evidence that there is limited succession planning taking place and that young professionals are not interested in taking the helm. This led to the obvious question of why and more importantly, what it would take to attract young professionals to the nonprofit sector. In the light of the urgency of this issue, it became the focus of my research paper.


What I quickly discovered was that were three key consistent barriers that young professionals looking to build their careers in the nonprofit sector had identified – leadership style, professional development and low wages.



1. Nonprofit Leadership Composition and Style


Young Nonprofit Professional

“Pale, male and stale” was an expression that I came across repeatedly to describe the current leadership in the nonprofit sector. For many young professionals looking to the nonprofit sector as a career they do not seem themselves reflected in the composition or style of leadership and in particularly women, as they are greatly underrepresented in nonprofit leadership roles.


The lack of ethnic diversity in leadership is another obstacle when young professionals look to the sector for future career opportunities. The style of leadership in many nonprofit organizations was also noted as a concern. The environment was described by some young professionals currently working in the sector as ambiguous, lacking clear feedback and missing the right support from management.


2. Lack of Professional Development Opportunities


Young Nonprofit Professional

Professional development, or the lack thereof, is another key barrier for young professionals. One interviewee from an Imagine Canada report blatantly stated, “There is no budget for professional development…it’s a nicety that is brought up in reviews”.


Young professionals currently working in the non-profit sector expressed the desire to have access to training and development opportunities to prepare them for leadership opportunities. Not only are the options for professional development limited, but research indicated that when there were strategies for developing and retaining talent they were often not effectively implemented.


 3. Financial Insecurity and Low Wages


Young Nonprofit Professional

It was no surprise that the notoriously low wages and lack of benefits in the sector were identified as an obstacle for many young professionals looking to further their nonprofit careers. Millennials, who are the most talked about generation and those the sector is looking to attract and retain, were reported as have anxiety around reaching milestones in their lives such as owning a house and having a family to due financial constraints.


The reputation of the nonprofit sector is one of “overworked and underpaid”. This coupled with the “martyr myth” perpetuates the belief that those doing good do not need good compensation. This makes it difficult for young professionals to see the sector as a viable career option, despite the fact they believe strongly in the value of the work that many nonprofits do.


Where do we go from here?


Identifying these barriers left me feeling concerned for the future of nonprofit leadership. What changes would the sector need to make in order to ensure a future generation of committed leaders? The answer I found seemed to lie in bridging the gap between current and future leaders. But how? Some of the key recommendations I came across in my research focused on better communication and creating space for more intergenerational conversation. In addition, the need to be careful not to overemphasize the generational differences and stereotypes which may prevent the multiple generations from finding commonality in their values and goals.


The use of technology to attract young professionals to the sector was identified as being important, as well as the opportunity to allow young professionals to use their knowledge and skills in social media to benefit the nonprofit organization. The shared leadership model was noted as a potential solution to help engage younger staff in leadership. This model focuses on shared power with inclusion of all staff in decision-making and honoring constructive feedback and ideas.


Finding creative opportunities for professional development was also a recommendation I came across in my research. In an article from Charity Village the author highlighted some options such as “short-term secondments, peer networks that offer professional development workshops and opportunities to learn about the work of other nonprofits, and mentoring and leadership development programs”.


Mentoring does not have to be done in a traditional sense with some organizations engaging in reverse mentoring, group mentoring, micro-feedback, peer-to-peer mentoring, virtual mentoring and anonymous mentoring.


The biggest challenge however was addressing the concern of low wages and lack of benefits in the non-profit sector. This is a complicated issue which stems from the overhead myth where nonprofits struggle to find a balance between offering fair wages and the expectation that donors have of maintaining low overhead costs. My research indicated that better communication around this issue is vital and that leadership is in a position to advocate for fair compensation for their staff. The Imagine Canada report noted that “nonprofit leaders have an organizational responsibility to work collaboratively and openly with funders to encourage funding practices that support stable working conditions”.


My research left me hopeful that more intergenerational communication and finding creative solutions can help to address the barriers that young non-profit professionals have identified that will allow for a future generation of passionate and committed leaders in the non-profit sector.



Keela will be working closely with Christina and Giving Well to make this full research report available to everyone. For more information about when the research will be available, sign up for updates below:




About Christina Labarca

Christina is a co-founder and consultant with Giving Well

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