Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Peer Networks, a Simple Strategy with Real Results

The Foraker Group boards have identified a major issue looming in the future for the nonprofit sector – a leadership shortage. In a prior article we summarized studies on this issue including the findings from the Bridgespan Group, a national resource for nonprofit organizations. In 2006, Bridgespan conducted a study on the leadership requirements of nonprofits with revenues greater than $250,000 (excluding hospitals and institutions of higher education). They found that soon a leadership void will become acute. Some of the specific findings were:

  • Over the next decade, organizations will need to attract and develop as many as 640,000 new senior managers, the equivalent of 2.4 times the number currently employed.

  • If the sector were to experience significant consolidation and reduce its turnover rates, this number might fall as low as 330,000.

  • By 2016, these organizations will need almost 80,000 new senior managers per year.

The Foraker boards created a task force to study this issue and develop strategies to help meet the challenge it poses. Steve Marshall, a member of the Governance Board and past CEO of BP Alaska, was asked to chair this task force because of his work with BP studying leadership transition for their world-wide operations. BP is partnering with MIT to review the best academic thinking on this issue and develop their own strategies, so we are lucky to be able to “tag along” with their process.

Steve is not alone in his concern. Foraker board members George Cannelos, Janie Leask, Sheri Buretta, Ira Perman, Jim Maley, and Sammye Pokryfki also are enthusiastic to better understand this issue. Alice Galvin, a local BP leadership specialist, is facilitating the process.

The task force reviewed articles. Then they met with a group of established nonprofit leaders to better understand their transition plans and with emerging leaders to understand what obstacles they were experiencing in moving ahead. Both groups were asked what support we could offer to retain the current leaders as long as possible, while at the same time encouraging the development of the next generations of leaders.

The consensus was to support more peer networking. The primary reason we held our Leadership Summit last week was because of this feedback. Leaders want to connect to each other, support each other, and have time to learn new skills and reflect on their career. Given the success of the Summit, we plan to continue hosting such statewide events in the future.

At another meeting I recently attended, along with Foraker staff Laurie Wolf and Mike Walsh, we learned how important peer networking can be in developing leaders. Nonprofit CEO’s and key executives have few to rely on for work support, except peers outside their organization. Our jobs are so unique that few could really empathize and advise us, except one of us. After all, we need to “keep the vision,” work with staff, manage a relationship with the board, cultivate donors, work with clients/constituents, and squeeze water from rocks, leap tall buildings and climb tall mountains.

Those who work for a national nonprofit often have access to a system of supported peer networks. When I worked in United Way, I was involved in a few, small informal support groups. As I matured in the field, I was asked to join a more formal group that communicated by phone or email when necessary, but met at least once a year to contemplate issues, learn new skills and maybe equally important, have fun with each other – our professional friends. Even while I enjoyed that group, I joined another in Alaska and today continue to participate with yet another peer group.

Research conducted recently by Paul Connolly of the TCC Group – formerly The Conservation Company, another national resource for nonprofits – looked at nonprofit capacity building practices to determine what impact, if any, was achieved from such services. TCC was commissioned by the Packard Foundation.

One of the capacity building strategies they reviewed was how to enhance leadership development. They noted many organizations used mentors or executive coaches as techniques to develop leaders. Their research found that while traditional mentor relationships – where an elder, more experienced individual supported a younger, less experienced person – or executive coaching, where a professional with experience works with another person with less experience – both had benefit, neither fostered the development of leadership. What those more traditional techniques did was to help the protégé develop better skills such as time management, people management and decision making as well as learn how to connect to others. However, they did not appear to build confidence of emerging leaders and, therefore, did not assist in their development.

On the other hand, the researchers found that while these cross generation/experience relationships did not develop leaders, peer networks did! They defined peer networks as groups that are comprised of six-to-ten people with comparable skills, experience and/or age. Another interesting finding is that peer networks were effective at developing leaders regardless of their level of formality. As long as the peer network was comprised of peers, sharing and supporting each other to develop as leaders, the process seemed to have more benefit than any other technique of leadership development. They found that such groups meet at least three-to-four times each year.

Who would have ever thought that spending time with peers, friends, or colleagues could be so beneficial? If you can accept the TCC Group’s findings, the application is clear – if you are already involved in a peer support network, congratulations! If not, why wait?

At the Leadership Summit, we encouraged everyone to connect with each other. And we’re pleased to report that many of you did just that. We expect that a bountiful supply of new generation leaders will emerge because of this peer networking – and that existing leaders will find support to keep on, keeping on a few more years.