Points of Resonance and Action: What Inspires Us about The Talent Philanthropy Project

Earlier this year I wrote about how intentionally collaborating across generational and hierarchical boundaries is not just a nice, collegial thing to do: it is a necessity. The fact is that there are dozens of generationally-specific leadership development networks (mostly geared at Millennials) but very few networks that provide serious cross-generational dialogue and problem -solving around the full pipeline of nonprofit talent and intergenerational leadership issues.

Since 2012 the Intergenerational Working Group (IWG), of which EPIP Philadelphia is a partner, has been working with other local nonprofits, funders and consultants, forming a “think tank” or “working group” of leaders across generations to re-imagine how career development happens in our organizations. The IWG embraces its collaborative values by intentionally inviting individuals across generational, hierarchical, sexual, gender and racial identities. In August 2013, the IWG invited Rusty Stahl, founder of EPIP and now director of the Talent Philanthropy Project (TPP), to speak to the IWG about his research and the direction of the TPP.  The TPP asks the question: Can funders reconsider how they support the nonprofit sector with a revised emphasis on strengthening the development of the individuals who work in it?

The meeting was high-energy.  Folks appreciated the accessible metaphors Stahl used to describe the concepts of Talent Philanthropy. One was the idea of “a bottleneck on the nonprofit career highway “where “boomers are solidly in their lanes, merely considering various exit ramps. Generation X’ers are sitting in traffic behind them, seeking new routes. Millennials, meanwhile, are trying to join the roadway from the entrance ramps and gain speed” (Stahl, 2013). Funders tend to tend to ignore the systemic talent management problems altogether, leaving nonprofits without the financial resources and incentives to improve the infrastructure of their own highway.

In preparation for the follow-up meeting, participants were asked to read Stahl’s article published in The Foundation Review, “Talent Philanthropy: Investing in Nonprofit People to Advance Nonprofit Performance.”  We began by priming our memories and discussing jobs that we’ve felt most successful in with a partner. My partner, Terrill Thompson from CLT Consulting, felt that his current role as a consultant was the most rewarding for him. He feels gratified by the opportunity to cultivate real trust in leadership of organizations for whom he works.  My favorite job  involving a partnership was as a program-selling jester for Cirque du Soleil. The wages were low, but the company was very respectful and appreciative of its part-time sales employees. We ate in the same area as the performers, were given complementary tickets for our families and were awarded regularly for our performance each week.

As a group, the IWG found that our favorite partnership jobs offered us the chance to take risks and to feel valued. They were environments where learning was a priority and where we were given tasks and “allowed to run” with them. The experience of being a part of the creation of something special was a common element in everyone’s story.

The conversation about our individual experiences was motivating. It brought forth tangible examples and feelings which we used to consider potential applications for Talent Philanthropy Project concepts.

Points of Resonance

The group especially liked the idea of identifying “talent” as something that occurs across the entire workforce, not just the top. We appreciated how tough it is to recruit into the nonprofit sector. Since the point-of-entry to nonprofit careers often begins with an unpaid internship, those without the means to work without pay may be cut out of the recruitment pool at the beginning of their career journey.  We liked the idea of sabbatical funding, which could potentially re-invigorate our leaders with new ideas and could have multiple levels of impact, both personally for leaders and across organizations. Furthermore, it is detrimental when funders think of nonprofit staff as “overhead.” Sadly, in nonprofit culture many people have become accustomed to thinking of professional development as a luxury.  A big shift is needed to change all of this.

Points of Action

In breakout groups we went on to brainstorm potential interventions that could be made at the sector, organizational and individual levels to advance the key principles and ideas behind full investment in nonprofit staff.  A short list is below.

  • Normalize healthy organizational culture – that is, make it status quo for organizations to be open to new ideas.
  • Offer safe learning opportunities for staff.
  • Share leadership.
  • Foundations should prioritize (vs. promote) the benefits of staff development, making a deliberate connection between staff savvy and the impact on programs and communities.
  • Funders should prioritize and support living wages for nonprofit workers.
  • Foundations should ensure that prioritization of staff development becomes an opportunity for nonprofits – not another hoop to jump through.
  • Conversation should be opened up to a pool of potential individual supporters, like those who are interested in the talks and writings of Dan Palotta. Deepening investment in nonprofit excellence cannot be done by foundations alone. The shift will require a connection and understanding between donors and the organizations they fund, something which is currently lacking.
  • Initiate discussion about the distinction between true partnerships with nonprofits vs. nonprofits bending toward the unrealistic expectations of funders.
  • Organizations should shift toward intentional investment in staff, such as rolling staff development into a benefits package. In this way every staff member has an allotment each year and that becomes part of the organizational operating budget.
  • The creation of meaningful development and succession plans is vital across all levels of the organization.

Bright Spots – Moving Forward

Despite the enormity of the task, there are numerous beacons of promise that were highlighted at our meeting.  With regard to a wider paradigm shift, it appears that new donors, X’ers and Millennials are likely more amenable to the notion that nonprofit staff should earn not just living wages, but competitive wages.  A culture that values talent management already exists in some organizations, even those with limited capacity.

As a group, we know of at least a handful of very small nonprofits that offer living wages and explicitly promote staff development.  At a Japanese cultural organization, the Executive Director passed up an opportunity to personally use professional development funds for a trip to Japan. Instead, she encouraged another staff member to go who had never been to the country. A recent grantee of The Philadelphia Foundation working on housing stabilization has recently expanded both the number and specialization of staff, along with maintaining an extremely low staff turnover rate. Regular professional training opportunities, and fair compensation and benefit packages have contributed to the organization’s stable and committed workforce.

We also know that many local and national funders are already on board with the idea investment in capacity, an umbrella under which staff development falls Locally, United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey and The Philadelphia Foundation have funding dedicated to improving nonprofit leadership and management. Funding for individual talent is a deeper way of thinking about the capacity building these funders already do.

Per its mission, the IWG plans to help gather resources and offer tools through its web platform. The IWG also is committed to playing a convener role for discussion about generational issues in nonprofit management broadly and can use the TPP as a support frame. Additionally, with its partner members across nonprofits, funders, and EPIP Philadelphia, the IWG is poised to be thought-leader in the space of funder, nonprofit collaboration.

All EPIP Members are encouraged to join the IWG (there is no fee). For more information please contact [email protected] or [email protected].

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