Few clear pathways exist for professionals just starting out to enter the social sector. But investing in staff members—at all levels of an organization—to develop effective and skilled leaders is an important part of the work of achieving lasting change.
I had known from early-on that my finish line would be planted in a place where I was able to “do good.” As my job hunt progressed I determined that, for me, that would likely mean a role in a non-profit, NGO or foundation– what I’ve since learned to refer to more broadly as the “social sector.” But with graduation day looming months then weeks ahead of me, I discovered that there were few clear on-ramps to the kinds of work that I was interested in. Despite the wealth of resources that I was fortunate enough to have access to—from a student career center to on-campus job fairs—it became clear that I couldn’t rely on any well-trod pathways to lead me into entry-level opportunities for the kind of work I was looking for.
Regardless of industry, I’m confident that for anyone early in their career, today’s job search can prove an anxiety-ridden roller coaster ride; a bizarre exercise that would have you stifle any uncertainty or self-doubt in favor of mortifying self-promotion and feigned confidence canned into a Mad-Libs-esque cover letter. (Or maybe that was just my impression?) I often felt like I was scouring for jobs in the pinhole-sized overlap between my own skills and experience, my interests, the workplace culture I was looking for and, of course, actual job openings. And for entry-level workers searching for a place in the social sector like I was, there’s yet another parameter that narrows the search: mission-fit.
When it comes to finding a job in the social sector, there are a number of steps in the search process that must fall to the seeker: discernment of passions, an investigation of personal values to inform culture-fit, an audit of individual skills. However, in my experience, the variable that was hardest to fit in was on the “supply side”—that is, matching my own skills and (general lack of) professional experience to job openings.
After undergoing this “auditing” process for myself, I had come away with a substantial list of issue areas that I was eager to dive into. And I could see my personal values articulated in the mission statements of countless nonprofits, advocacy groups, foundations and other social good organizations. There was simply no shortage of places doing incredible work–work that I’d be honored and enthused to spend my days in service of. And then I’d look at their job postings and a problem would become readily apparent: they didn’t need me.
I’d see fairly frequent openings at the Director and Program Manager level that were obviously not for me. I’d occasionally encounter openings for Coordinators and Officers, with job descriptions that sounded more closely aligned with my abilities, but rarely would a description stipulate anything less than 3 years of experience. And then there were an array of unpaid or stipend-based internships, often geared toward students at the undergraduate or graduate level; but those posts had major financial implications that I couldn’t stomach. I was left with a burning desire to do something meaningful, but it was being increasingly smothered by a disheartening realization: maybe there was no place in the social sector for me, or at the very least, not yet.
The dynamics at play made perfect sense to me. Non-profits and other other social sector organizations are working to maximize their impact with limited resources. Young, untried employees can be a risky investment; at best, a time-intensive one. On the other hand, a mid-level professional who brings some experience should be able to start contributing real value to the organization from day one. My habitual stalking of job-boards suggested that the costs of investing in developing young talent were a disincentive to bringing on entry-level employees in the first place, regardless of how passionate or committed to the work they may be.
I wonder whether the hesitancy to invest in young leaders at the outset of their careers—to commit the time and resources necessary to grow their skills—isn’t emblematic of the broader pattern of how we do, or don’t, approach the work of leadership development in the social sector. The challenges associated with systematically high turnover and lack of succession planning at the highest levels of nonprofit organizations has been documented by non-profit consultancy Bridgespan; they’ve been ringing the warning bells on this for a decade now.
In their surveys of executive-level leaders who have left their organizations, consistently cited were insufficient opportunities to develop new skills and lack of mentorship. Many respondents said they felt their organizations simply didn’t prioritize staff development. And organizations pay a heavy toll for failing to build these leadership pipelines internally, according to Bridgespan. It comes in the form of steep recruitment and training costs, dips in productivity and ultimately, a limit on their ability to create the positive change that they want to see in the world.
The takeaway for me is that for many non-profit organizations, investments in leadership development among staff members are seen as a “nice to have,” ancillary to rather than a necessary foundation for the day-to-day work of the organization. Perhaps these are two sides to the same coin.
If so, I fear that this blind spot in intentional leadership development—up and down the organizational hierarchy—comes at the expense of attracting and retaining much-needed talent. The problems that we’ve set out to solve are deep-rooted, and we’ve got work cut out for us for generations. Human capital may well be our greatest resource for driving long-term, lasting change. The responsibility to invest in that resource—including both developing existing staff members and building bridges to engage more early-stage professionals in the work—is embedded in our mission statements as social change organizations.
But how often is the work that that entails made explicit? How is it resourced, and how is it measured? Those rough indicators are often a pretty surefire way to assess the extent to which something is or isn’t being prioritized.
This is just my experience. But it’s been informed by my own role, now, within an organization that does think intentionally about how we develop leadership capacity in every seat in the office. And I can’t help but think that there are other young people like me, eager for an opportunity to contribute but unsure where to plug in. In fact, I know there are. I don’t think we can afford not to invest in them.
Maybe that describes you, or my experience has been reminiscent of your own. Maybe your job hunt looked entirely different, or your role in the recruitment and hiring process has granted you another perspective on this issue. Tell us about it! Sharing your experience will not only help us gain insight into how this challenge shows up in the field, it’s also a meaningful step toward a more open dialogue about how we work to develop leaders.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on May 8, 2017.