Skip to main content

Fewer People Want to Lead Nonprofits. What’s the Answer?

Written by: Frances Kunreuther and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld
Published on: Mar 4, 2024

Important strides have been made in the past decade to support new nonprofit leaders. But just as more baby boomers are stepping down from the top spots, fewer people want to take their place, and those who are interested — especially people of color — are moving into leadership out of dissatisfaction with the way their organizations are run.

That’s the conclusion of the newest report in the Race to Lead series, “The Push and Pull: Declining Interest in Nonprofit Leadership,” released on Thursday by our organization, the Building Movement Project.

We found that the percentage of respondents of color who aspire to lead an organization had dipped to the lowest level across three surveys we’ve conducted since 2016 — from a high of 52 percent in 2019 to 46 percent in the new report, which reflects data collected in 2022. These findings were particularly alarming since our previous surveys showed an increase in the percent of nonprofit staff of color who expressed an interest in leadership positions.

When we looked at what could be driving this reversal, we found that aspiring leaders, especially those of color, weren’t being pulled into leadership through support and positive role models but were more often pushed into top positions to escape difficult work circumstances and improve the situation for themselves and others.

Since we began conducting these surveys, both people of color and white respondents have reported fewer challenges with issues such as adequate pay, opportunities for advancement, and workloads and received generally greater organizational support for their work. We assumed that removing barriers would translate into a positive desire to move into leadership.

But the data showed the opposite. The more challenges respondents faced in nonprofit workplaces, including inadequate salaries and a lack of mentors, the more likely they were to express an interest in the top role, particularly people of color.

This pattern was evident in the higher leadership aspiration rates among staff of color in organizations where 75 percent of the board and senior leaders are white. People of color in these white-run nonprofits were less likely to feel they have a voice in their organization or that they would be happy still working there in three years — compared with those working in nonprofits led by people color. This finding further reinforces the conclusion that nonprofit staff are more often interested in moving into leadership roles to escape problems with their current positions.

Once on the job, we found executive directors of color continue to report less support from boards and staff than their white peers. For example, 70 percent of white executive directors said they had strong support from their board when they entered their positions compared with just 49 percent of leaders of color.

The Burnout Factor

Unsurprisingly, given this finding, leaders who were planning to leave their jobs reported burnout as their top reason — 41 percent of executive directors of color compared with 31 percent of white leaders.

The bar was never this high for my predecessors.

One woman leader of color surveyed starkly described conditions ripe for burnout: “It feels like we are asking more things out of a workplace than we ever have before at precisely the moment in time people and women of color are being called to lead. The bar was never this high for my predecessors.”

When the crisis of nonprofit leadership was first noted in the early 2000s, another warning was raised and largely ignored. In CompassPoint’s “Daring to Lead” series of reports, leaders complained about problems with their boards of directors and outsized expectations for the top leadership job. This resulted in 75 percent of the leaders saying they would leave their jobs within five years.

Our new data is a reminder of how much more still needs to be done to make leadership roles attractive. As baby boomers step out of long-term positions, younger leaders are less defined by their organizations and more comfortable with shorter tenures. At the same time, reports of burnout from the demands of the top job have not abated.

To sustain current leaders and to increase interest in these positions, greater attention is needed to develop the positive aspects of the job. Here are a few ways grant makers and current nonprofit leaders can help:

Ensure the job is doable. That includes providing funding to hire staff that can help address the increasing number of both internal and external challenges involved in running a nonprofit, such as concerns about pay equity and work-life balance, and pushback on the work itself from local government officials and others — especially for leaders working with communities of color.

Increase support from exiting leaders and other executive directors. We found that leaders of color receive far less support from both their predecessors and leaders in other organizations than white executive directors do. Specifically, 22 percent of leaders of color and 30 percent of white leaders got support from their predecessors; and 33 percent of leaders of color and 41 percent of white leaders got support from leaders in other organizations. Simple solutions include providing the funding and assistance for formal and informal gatherings where leaders can share information about best practices and support each other.

Cultivate younger staff with leadership aspirations. Our data found high levels of interest in leading among people in their 20s entering the nonprofit sector. At the same time, 13 percent fewer respondents of color reported receiving mentoring from within their organizations than white staff. Young people need mentors who can encourage them and show the benefits of leading.

Remain open to, and fund, alternative leadership approaches. The survey showed that co-executive director arrangements are on the rise, doubling for leaders of color from 6 percent to 12 percent — an indication that sharing leadership is another way of supporting those in the top role.

Organizations should also consider different types of partnerships between boards and executive directors that put more emphasis on what new leaders need to succeed and less on micromanaging.

It’s easy to complain about the demands on leaders and the challenges of the job. But unless the nonprofit world comes together to address these problems — and highlight the benefits of leading organizations — we could find ourselves in a genuine crisis. That would be a tragedy given the growing problems facing so many communities — and the strong and passionate leaders needed to solve them.