The Slow-Motion Nonprofit Leadership Train Wreck

Plymouth University in England recently unveiled a major study on nonprofit leadership. Based on responses from more than 1,100 nonprofit leaders, the study is among the first of its kind.

“The Wake Up Call

The study is aptly titled “The Wake Up Call because its 45 pages reveal chronic under investment in nonprofit leadership.

Perhaps most alarming of all are these two statistics:

  • 67 percent of nonprofit leaders plan to retire or step down in the next five years.
  • 78 percent of organizations do not have formal succession planning in place.

A deeper look at organizations’ succession planning shows more reasons for alarm.

Nonprofit Leadership Study Results

These numbers show a silent tsunami headed toward nonprofits everywhere. Leaders are burning out or looking to retire, and few organizations have a succession plan. Even fewer are prepared to investigate the causes and effects of their leaders’ stress and exhaustion.

Is a lack of nonprofit leadership development to blame? 

The study’s respondents make a strong case that it is. Only half felt leadership development needs were being met. As for those who said their needs weren’t being met, they ranked leadership training as their number one need, followed closely by coaching and mentoring.

Along with these sobering statistics, the study points out a compounding factor: Only about 30 percent of respondents have access to the leadership development opportunities they need.

A growing confidence crisis in nonprofit leadership

A Wake Up Call: Nonprofit Leadership Crisis It’s no wonder, then, that only 21 percent of respondents reported a great degree of confidence in their leadership abilities. And what’s their most common form of leadership development? Attending conferences. Nothing against conferences, but rarely are they designed to develop leadership skills as much as educate on topics and trends.

And so, we have leaders who desperately need training, coaching, and mentoring, but not getting it. No wonder we’re seeing so many nonprofit leaders steady slide into burnout. Combine that with organizations not planning for their leaders’ inevitable departures, and it’s easy to see a slow-motion train wreck coming into view.

It’s time for nonprofit boards to step up 

The study is a wake-up call for boards. After all, part of a board’s responsibility is to ensure an organization has all the resources it needs. That includes training and mentoring so leaders can confidently guide their nonprofits through challenging times.

Addressing these issues may include some uncomfortable conversations among board members, as well as between the board and executive director. Is the board prepared, for instance, to lose the executive director tomorrow?

If the answer is no, then the board is not doing its duty. A hard truth, but an important one to face, especially when many nonprofits don’t have enough administrative support.

Treat the problems as opportunities

Now that boards and organizations can see the impending train wreck, they can start finding solutions—and avoid being caught in the wreckage. 

Leadership Crisis in the Nonprofit Sector

A good place to start: Assess leaders’ performance against the strategic plan. This is a core part of leadership appraisal, yet fewer than half of respondents said it happened.

It may not be an easy conversation (particularly if it’s never happened before), but it’s a vital one to start reversing the trend of leadership burnout.


Download the study and see if your organization is prepared for an unexpected change in leadership.
The Wake Up Call: A Study in Nonprofit Leadership in the U.S. and Its Impending Crisis



Download a free copy of "The Wake-Up Call"