Monday, February 23, 2009

A Breath of Fresh Air: Voices Informing the Future of Nonprofits

Article Review: Next Shift: Beyond the Nonprofit Leadership Crisis

Kunreuther, F. and Corvington, P.A.. Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation 2007)

Context: Yes, a breath of fresh air is what this reading offers. Of course, I recognize that this gratitude all depends on the quality of air you are breathing. In my 20+ year career as a nonprofit professional, I have grown increasingly disappointed with conversations about how the sector could and is developing. My criticism stems from my interpretation that these conversations (passed on at conferences sessions, foundation monographs, scholarly journals, and main stream publicist) often lack holistic and long-term thinking. In addition, the discourse is insular. There is little cross sector material and well, let's not even get into the topic of inclusion. This is why I am so thrilled with this monograph because it addresses all of these issues and more. Furthermore, being familiar with the work of at least one of the authors and the networks with which she interacts, I am confident that these issues are coming to the forefront in a healthy way. What gives me hope is my fortune to have a network of colleagues who not only lift up these issues but are directly addressing them in their own work and organizations…in that sense I know there is a growing subculture in the nonprofit sector who is already reframing the work and leadership can be transformed (see

Summary: The ideas presented in this monograph offers both seasoned and nascent social change workers a perspective that is finally gaining ground among progressive nonprofit leaders and philanthropic stakeholders. This monograph, one of a two edition series, offers findings from The Building Movement Project. This project “advocates for US nonprofit organizations to build strong social justice ethos into their vision and activities and to strengthen the role of nonprofit groups as sites of democratic practice." In other words, to be places where "the talk is walked" in all aspects of the work.

Kunreuther and Corvington clearly articulate how the frame of "crisis" limits how people think about and thus shape the future of nonprofits. The "crisis" to which they refer is the shift in nonprofit leadership. Engaging nonprofit workers in their 20'3, 30's, and early 40's, the authors uncover that nonprofit workers in this cohort advocate addressing "structural rather than organizational responses" (p. 6); more specifically "organizational structure, the executive position, and leadership recognition" (p. 6). In presenting the feedback from participants the author’s aptly present issues rarely spoken about across generations of nonprofit workers, such as, the rejection of younger leaders rejecting the idea of moving into nonprofit leadership positions (p.7). They fittingly describe how emergent leaders recognize the limitations of executive director positions due to demand on need for funding, the growing pressure to employ business ethics and practices within social change work, and increasing competition (p. 7). These examples are just two from the article.

As all good monographs do, we are treated to recommendations for action that are framed in a powerful and reality-check way:

Change is coming. We can call it leadership crisis or deficit. Alternatively, we can seek it as an opportunity to rethink our assumptions about leadership and structure in nonprofit organizations. The recommendations address both the broader issues and some specific ways to get started. (p.10)

Why This Article is Important: This article lifts up the possibility that in a time when there is increasing anxiety, seasoned and emergent nonprofit leaders can engage conversations that are intergenerational, inclusive, keep future generations in mind, and that welcome innovative approaches that may not have worked at other times in history or are not found to be “realistic” because they have never been tried. There are nonprofit workers at all ages that are ready and willing to step into messy conversations and practices that can restructure our sector’s organizations, broaden and deepen our impact, and welcome transformative approaches to leadership. We all know change is not easy. To transform our society we have to be willing to transform ourselves and our organizations in ways that reflect the inclusive and just society we spend our lives trying to create.

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