• October 24, 2014

Burnout, Low Pay May Drive Young Charity Workers Away, Survey Finds

A new survey of young nonprofit workers shows that long hours and low pay are a key reason that few of them expect to stay in the charity world throughout their professional careers — and even fewer desire to become top leaders of nonprofit organizations.

More than 70 percent of young nonprofit employees don't ever expect to serve as the executive director of a charity, according to a new survey released last week at the national conference of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network.

What's more, 45 percent of nonprofit workers predict that their next job will not be at a charity, but in government or business, according to the survey.

"Many of our members aren't sure they want the executive-director jobs the way they're currently structured, and they're also thinking of leaving the sector," said Josh Solomon, a board member of the network, which offers training and other services to people in their 20s and 30s. Mr. Solomon, 32, is managing director of alumni engagement at Teach for America, a New York organization.

Less than 9 percent said they were highly likely to seek the top job at the nonprofit group where they currently work, according to the survey of more than 1,650 of the network's members.

The average age of respondents was about 28.

Young charity workers cited burnout and low pay as the biggest reasons they might leave nonprofit work. When asked why they would not pursue leadership jobs, they cited concerns about the pressure from board members, grant makers, and heavy work burdens that face executive directors.

"We need to think about ways to make these positions sustainable," said Mr. Solomon, who presented the results. "Passion isn't enough to keep people in these roles."

'All I Do Is Fund Raise'

Speakers at the conference said that nonprofit executives have done a poor job of making charities seem like appealing places to work.

Frances Kunreuther, director of the Building Movement Project, a New York organization that promotes social change, says she loves her job, but she conceded at the meeting that she is one of the baby boomers who probably didn't put the job of leading an organization in a positive light.

"If you came and talked to me at 5 or 6 or 7 on a Friday, I would say, 'Oy vey, this is the worst job I've ever had. All I do is fund raise.'"

Even as many charities are expecting to lose leaders to retirement over the next several years, they are doing little to prepare younger staff members to take over, conference participants said.

Most charities are organized in a very hierarchical way, and directors tend to be too busy or unwilling to share responsibilities, participants said.

More than 70 percent of those surveyed said that job experience was what they needed most in order to prepare for a higher-level position. Getting coaching or guidance from a mentor was the second-most-cited need, followed by opportunities to learn from peers, graduate degrees, and professional workshops.

"It's not a huge financial investment our membership is looking for," said Mr. Solomon. "It's really time."

Two years ago, he worked as interim executive director of the Food Project, in Boston, during a summer break from business school, but said that such opportunities are too rare.

Many young people aren't sure what type of experience they need to advance because there aren't clear career paths at nonprofit organizations, conference participants said.

Some young people leave nonprofit work for the corporate world with the intention of coming back later in their careers.

While some conference participants said working for a corporation offered a good way to get skills that could be helpful in managing and leading nonprofit groups, others worried about losing people to business or government permanently because they offer higher-paid opportunities than charities do.

"It will be very hard to get people back," said Michael Brotchner, director of development at the Fund for Public Schools, in New York.

Professional Development

Charities need to provide more support and professional-development opportunities to staff members at the middle-management level, so they aren't forced to leave the nonprofit world in order to gain experience or pay their bills, conference participants said.

"It's okay if you go into other sectors and get different skills and bring them back to the nonprofit sector," said Liza Davies, 26, a co-chair of the network's national board and director of corporate and foundation relations at Crittenton Women's Union, in Boston. "But I don't want that to mean that we give up on the idea of developing a perfectly viable, successful, fulfilling, and lucrative career path within the sector itself."

Young charity workers also expressed concern that there might not be high-level jobs opening up to them, even if they do feel prepared to take on more responsibility.

Despite a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showing that nearly two-thirds of executive directors plan to leave their jobs by 2009, some people at the conference questioned whether a leadership transition was really happening on a large scale.

"People might leave their jobs, but they're not going to leave the sector and they're not going to stop working," said Ms. Kunreuther. "The new 50 is 70."

Diversity Concerns

In addition, charity workers said that factors like low pay are driving men and minority groups out of the field in disproportionate numbers, contributing to a lack of diversity within the profession. Moreover, charities tend to pay women lower salaries for the same work, participants said.

"A lot of us have gone to work at organizations that might have a social-justice framework, but when we get there we find that racism and sexism are still alive and well, and the glass ceiling still exists," said Julia Beatty, a program officer at the Twenty-First Century Foundation, a New York group that raises money to help blacks promote social change.

Conference participants said some of their colleagues have to rely on spouses, parents, or other sources for the financial support to remain in the field.

Women, meanwhile, made up more than 80 percent of the people who responded to the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network survey, and also make up the majority of the association's membership, which currently numbers more than 10,000. "You shouldn't have to marry money to be able to work at a nonprofit over the long term," Mr. Solomon said in an interview.

Findings from the survey will soon be available on the network's Web site.

Foundation Efforts

While the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a few other grant makers have provided some support to attracting and retaining young nonprofit employees, speakers said, it's still not an area most foundation officers are thinking about.

Patrick A. Corvington, a senior associate of leadership development at the Casey foundation, who moderated a session at the conference, said in an interview that foundations don't have to create new grant-making programs to prepare younger people for nonprofit careers.

They can start by encouraging their own grantees to think about leadership transitions, he said.

A foundation that supports environmental-justice issues, for example, might gather its grantees and encourage them to talk about leadership as one topic in a larger conversation about the field.

"It's a touchy issue for funders to raise," said Mr. Corvington, 40. "But there are different doors to walk through."

Age Bias

In a speech at the conference, Nancy Lublin, who founded the nonprofit group Dress for Success three years after she graduated from college in 1993, added an exclamation point to many of the concerns voiced by young people at the conference.

"I was told multiple times that I could apply for more money and do better if I were older," said Ms. Lublin, who started the charity with $5,000 she inherited from her great-grandfather. "There's a lot of ageism out there."

Ms. Lublin, who is now chief executive of Do Something, a nonprofit organization that encourages young people to volunteer, questioned whether many executives would leave the nonprofit world in the next few years.

"People who work for Goldman Sachs retire and go to Florida," she said. "People who work at nonprofits stay and are carried out on stretchers."

But she argued that there are many ways that next-generation professionals can take advantage of their youth.

Younger workers often have greater technological skills than their older colleagues, said Ms. Lublin. She also encouraged people to serve on boards of organizations like Young Nonprofit Professionals Network in order to gain experience.

Ms. Lublin urged young people to find innovative solutions to social problems, both by helping to transform organizations where they work and by starting new nonprofit groups.

Still, she cautioned that striking out on one's own is rarely the best approach. Dress for Success has thrived, and now has 75 affiliates that provide professional clothing and career training to low-income women.

"If I had to do it over again, I would take my $5,000 and go to the YMCA and say, 'Can you make this a program?'" she said. "You can make a huge impression and get more sleep if you work within an existing group rather than starting your own."

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