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Leadership Challenges Facing Nonprofit Human Service Organizations in a


Post-Recession Era

Article in Human Service Organizations Management · October 2014

DOI: 10.1080/23303131.2014.977208

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Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership &
Governance

ISSN: 2330-3131(Print) 2330-314X(Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wasw21

Leadership Challenges Facing Nonprofit Human

Service Organizations in a Post-Recession Era Karen


Hopkins, Megan Meyer, Wes Shera & S. Colby Peters

To cite this article: Karen Hopkins, Megan Meyer, Wes Shera & S. Colby Peters (2014) Leadership Challenges
Facing Nonprofit Human Service Organizations in a Post-Recession Era, Human Service Organizations:
Management, Leadership & Governance, 38:5, 419-422, DOI: 10.1080/23303131.2014.977208

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23303131.2014.977208

Published online: 24Nov 2014.

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Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance, 38:419–422, 2014

Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

ISSN: 2330-3131 print/2330-314X online

DOI: 10.1080/23303131.2014.977208

GUEST EDITORIAL

Leadership Challenges Facing Nonprofit Human Service

Organizations in a Post-Recession Era

Karen Hopkins and Megan Meyer

University of Maryland School of Social Work, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Wes Shera

University of Toronto School of Social Work, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

S. Colby Peters

University of Maryland School of Social Work, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

The nonprofit sector has been the fastest growing segment of the U.S. economy in the last decade,
primarily due to growth in the economy’s service fields of health care, education, and social services, which
account for 87% of nonprofit employment (Salamon, Sokolowski, & Gellar, 2012). While the sector has
grown significantly, it has still struggled to meet the demand for human services during the recent
recession. The Nonprofit Finance Fund’s 2014 State of the Sector Survey, which captured just over 5,000
nonprofits (human services being the largest proportion) showed 80% of respondents reported an increase
in demand for services, the 6th straight year of increased demand, 56% were unable to meet demand in
2013, the highest reported in the survey’s history, and 28% ended their 2013 fiscal year with a deficit.
Accompanying the growth of the sector and the recession are significant challenges that have threatened
the survival of nonprofits, especially smaller and mid-size agencies. These challenges include
insufficient financial, human, and technical resources for responding to growing need and demands for
service in the face of government and foundation cutbacks, tightly defined contracts, high rates of
underfunded infrastructure and overhead, and even higher expectations for accountability (Nonprofit
Finance Fund’s 2014 State of the Sector Survey; Urban Institute, 2011).

Thus, while the demand for nonprofits to provide more services and accountability is increasing, there is
also a thinner spread of funding that forces organizations to provide more services with less money. Often,
nonprofit leaders and managers have to make difficult decisions about staffing and rationing of services to
clients, as well as embrace new practice models that improve efficiency and demonstrate clearer outcomes.
The managerial competencies needed to successfully navigate this complex environment have evolved, and
recent scholarship on leadership emphasizes the clear need
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Correspondence should be addressed to Karen Hopkins, University of Maryland School of Social Work, 525 W. Redwood Street,
Baltimore, MD 21201, USA. E-mail: khopkins@ssw.umaryland.edu
420
HOPKINS ET AL.

for strong and “adaptive leadership” that is able to usher in technical and innovative organizational changes
at a pace that organizational stakeholders can manage. Also noted is that leadership needs to be cultivated
not just in the managerial and executive positions of human service nonprofits, but across positions and
roles at various levels. (Oftelie, Booth & Wareing, 2012).

THE LEADERSHIP “CRISIS” IN HUMAN SERVICE NONPROFITS

There is evidence of a leadership deficit or possible “crisis” in the nonprofit sector due to the retire- ment of
many nonprofit managers, inadequate succession planning, and far fewer potential managers trained to take
the helm of the growing number of nonprofits. While some suggest this crisis may be overstated (Johnson,
2009), others predict that by 2016, nonprofits will need almost 80,000 new senior-level managers
annually (Bridgespan Group, 2012; Center for Creative Leadership, 2012; Tierney, 2006). While the
need and intensity for human services is increasing, there is concern that leadership talent is declining
(Leadership for a Networked World, 2010, 2013). According to the Center for Creative Leadership (2009,
p. 1), “Crucial leadership skills in today’s organizations are insufficient for meeting current and future
needs and many managers are voicing their fears that the talent they have is not the talent they need”.

Indeed, with the growing shortage of nonprofit managers and leaders, many professionals in human
service organizations (HSOs) find themselves thrust into managerial and leadership posi- tions without
the knowledge and skills necessary to be effective. Many current nonprofit managers recognize their
leadership limitations and desire new approaches and leadership skills to help them increase their
organization’s capacity in areas such as restructuring and organizational change, resource development,
collaboration and integrative services, technology and tools for planning and decision-making, diversity
and inclusiveness, and evidence-informed practice (Cohen & Hyde, 2014; Nonprofit Leadership Alliance,
2011). Community-based human service organizations also seek community-building leadership skills to
successfully identify and respond to their community’s issues, needs, and resources.

The health of the human services sector is dependent upon equipping these emerging leaders with both
key managerial and leadership skills, and funders are increasingly pressuring organizations to hire
“professionally certified human service administrators” with leadership skills (Nonprofit Leadership
Alliance, 2011). Nevertheless, few nonprofit organizations provide in-house leadership training for their
staff, and while the number of nonprofit management degree and training programs has increased in the last
decade, leadership development specific to nonprofit human service orga- nizations has lagged behind. For
instance, despite the critical need for preparing students in human services graduate programs to develop
management and leadership skills that will make them more marketable and competitive in securing
administrative positions in human service agencies, related degree programs (i.e., Social Work, Nursing,
Public Health) are “lagging in their approach to both management and leadership education”, thus
preparing an inadequate number of human service workers to become future administrators or leaders
(Rothman, 2012). After several years in prac- tice many human service professionals do access
continuing education programs in leadership to improve their skills in this area. While these programs can
be useful they are often not as rigorous nor as comprehensive as graduate level training.
Educational institutions should provide both students and human service professionals with
opportunities to develop and use management and leadership skills seamlessly as a continuum across a
range of organizational types and community settings. Some professional associations, like the Network
for Social Work Managers and the National Public Health Leadership Development Network, have
identified core competencies in management and leadership upon which educational programs can draw to
craft leadership curriculums and measure participants’ progress (Hassan, Waldman & Wimpfheimer,
2013;Wimpfheimer, 2004).
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421
GUEST EDITORIAL

NEW LEADERSHIP MINDSETS

In addition to calls for increased emphasis on and access to leadership training within the non- profit
sector, are arguments for the need for training in new models of leadership. The Leadership Learning
Community, for instance, comprised of hundreds of funders from across the country, has called for a
transformation in how nonprofit leadership is “conceived, conducted, and eval- uated”. Their goal is to
promote leadership approaches that are more inclusive, networked, and collective (Cohen & Hyde,
2014; Meehan & Reinelt, 2012). The idea of collective leadership, in which people come together within
and across organizations and in partnership with community stakeholders to collaboratively develop
innovative solutions to both community and agency prob- lems, is consistent with human service values
for empowerment and self-determination evident in the missions of many human service nonprofits
(Hardina, Middleton, Montana & Simpson, 2007). Additionally, research conducted by the Leadership
Learning Community questions the effective- ness of traditional and hierarchical nonprofit leadership
models in “tackling complex, systemic, and adaptive problems” (Meehan & Reinelt, 2012). These
findings echo previous survey results from thousands of nonprofit managers, stressing that the leadership
competencies of today are not the competencies needed for tomorrow’s success of the nonprofit sector
(Nonprofit Strategic Alliance, 2011; Leadership for a Networked World, 2010; Center for Creative
Leadership, 2009). While past paradigms have focused primarily on identifying and emphasizing the
discrete skill sets leaders need to possess, new paradigms highlight the centrality of “mindset” and the
increasing impor- tance of emotional and social intelligence to leadership success (Goleman, 2011;
Kennedy, Carroll & Francoeur, 2012). For instance, proponents of shared leadership and the “collective
leadership mindset” advocate for openness, inclusion, sharing of information and resources, and
recogniz- ing the leadership potential throughout the organization (Allison, Misra & Perry, 2014; Meehan
& Reinelt, 2012).

Connected to collective leadership is the notion of “generative leadership” requiring leaders’ adaptive
and “network-intensive focus” in response to the rapid evolution of technology and a new generation of
human service workers and consumers who are digitally savvy. Organizational struc- tures and workspaces
may have to be altered where “work will comprise actively managing a set of resources, clients and
programs, often without the constraint of jurisdictional and programmatic boundaries.” Leaders across the
organization will need to be “actively mobilizing” technological and organizational innovations to
survive and thrive (Leadership for a Networked World, 2010, p. 28).

Clearly, the rapidity of social, economic and technological change requires nonprofit leaders to
change their mindset and behaviors, regardless of size or mission. They now must be adept at
connecting and weaving relationships within the agency and across boundaries in the commu- nity,
engaging in continuous learning, experimenting, risk taking, collaborating, integrating change, being
creative with limited resources, fostering an adaptive organizational culture, and inspiring, facilitating,
and supporting agency and community members to do the same (Meehan & Reinelt, 2012; Meehan,
Reinelt, Chaux, & Holley, 2012; Leadership for a Networked World, 2010, 2013; Center for Creative
Leadership, 2012, 2009). It is also important to highlight that this type of collaborative, collective,
networking approach facilitates organizations working together to advo- cate for adequate resources to
deliver creative, cost-effective services for clients. It is imperative that leadership development programs
keep pace and offer innovative curriculums that equip non- profit executives and their teams with the skills
to implement these new strategies. These programs must also structure themselves to be flexible,
capitalizing on technology to make programming accessible, and integrate on-going individual and peer
coaching models to ensure the knowledge and skills participants learn in coursework are reinforced over
time by real-world problem solving and peer support.
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422 HOPKINS ET AL.

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Bridgespan Group. (2012). Nonprofit leadership development: What’s your “Plan A” for growing future leaders? Boston, MA: The
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