The Talent Agenda: Why funders should support nonprofit networking

This post was originally published on’s IdealistCareers Blog on Feb. 20, 2013 as part of my Talent Agenda monthly column on that site.

While we often talk about how networking is key to career development and job seeking, we tend to gloss over the importance of networking in the development of a strong social sector. Networks are central to cultivating a talented, healthy, and diverse workforce for nonprofit organizations and social movements. But how do we create and support these networks? This post makes the case for why and how funders should support you and your organization in developing high-impact networks.

In a world overrun with schmoozing, why would funders allocate precious resources to help nonprofit leaders network?!

From an organizational standpoint, networks are hands-down the most effective tools for recruiting new talent. A recent survey on nonprofits human resources shows that formal and informal networking remain the most popular and effective recruiting methods: 84% of respondents were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with recruitment advertising through informal networks; 82% felt similarly about marketing jobs through formalnetworks.

(As a proud board member here, I would be remiss if I did not note that is rated third, with a 69% satisfaction rating, ranking above LinkedIn, Craigslist, Facebook, PhilanthropyCareers, Monster, Twitter, and all others. Of course, Idealist is itself a vast network of individuals and organizations; it is your participation that makes it so valuable, so thank you for being part of it!)

The power of networks doesn’t just apply to professional staff. The social capital of formal and informal networks also enables nonprofits to identify and recruit high-performing volunteers, donors, and board members, all of whom are extremely important for most successful nonprofits.

And while supporting network-building in the nonprofit sector may seem costly, the imperative to do so is compelling: in the resource-limited environment of the nonprofit workplace, getting excellent, committed, and skilled people into the organization must be a strategic management priority. And the best way to find these people—or enable them to find you and be attracted to your mission—is through networks. (If you really want to learn the natural laws that govern networks of all types, check out the incredible book Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life, a book written for a general audience by a brilliant young scientist named Albert-Lásló Barabási.)

Of course, there is another edge to this sword: people too often network with people in whom they see a reflection of themselves. This leads to a lack of diversity within networks and, hence, the boards and staff of organizations. But much like ecosystems, investment portfolios, and fundraising plans that seek small, medium, and large donations, networks with high levels of diversification are those that are most durable.

So let me revise the statement above: It takes great people to become a great organization. And the best way for nonprofits to find great people is by building up, engaging in, and recruiting through diverse networks.

If network-building is so important, what can funders do to support it?

Once foundation professionals and donors understand the benefits of network-building for the organizations they support, there is a lot they can do to help—from simply having ongoing conversations with nonprofits, to fully integrating a Talent Philanthropy framework. Here are a few additional actions funders can take:

  • Enable and encourage grantees to include network-building in grant objectives and budgets.Significant resources are needed to convene events, develop and lead coalitions, and establish network structures within an organization (such as membership or chapter structures, which are time and staff intensive). It also takes financial resources to attend conferences and to take colleagues out to lunch to deepen relationships. Consider a more structural approach to integrating these activities into the programs and activities of the organization itself.
  • Convene grantees. Create networking, peer-sharing, and skill-building opportunities amongst grantees that share some common purpose, characteristic, or challenge. This works best if the same people or groups meet repeatedly over time (I recommend annually). Funders shouldn’t be overly prescriptive about specific relationships or organizational partnerships; instead they should work closely with their nonprofit colleagues to create a space and let folks share content and build relationships as they themselves see fit. Note: If three foundations are convening a largely-overlapping set of nonprofits, it is way more efficient to hold one meeting and share the costs, rather than force the same people to travel a three-ringed foundation circuit.
  • Include extra funds in grant budgets to enable nonprofit staff to attend conferences. This includes CEOs, mid-level managers, and emerging leaders. Such a diversified delegation can bring different voices to the event, meet one another’s contacts, and bring back unique networks to the different levels at their organization. This is also a great way to boost morale and build community across the staff. And let me add one important note about conferences: You know how people always say the hallway conversations are the best part, not the formal sessions? That is because it is the hallways and hotel lobbies where the real networking happens; so let’s not push attending sessions too hard. And the networking only gets better when employees go to the same conference consistently for years; they start to become part of the community, and can reconnect with their networks as well as make new contacts. This approach offers terrific visibility, personal branding, and organization-building all at once.
  • Underwrite the member dues of grantees in relevant professional associations or other relevant networks. When I was E.D. of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, the membership association for young and new foundation professionals, I sought out and paid for our organization to join the American Society of Association Executives. (Yes. I know. And yes, it really exists. I agree, it’s meta: an association for association people. Can we move on now?) Two of us attended their conference. I bought their publications and I paid for several staff to take their online courses. This was a great way to meet our peers, learn best practices, and access knowledge from across the association world. I never thought to ask my funders to pay for any of this, and they rarely asked what I was doing for professional learning. These expenses were a serious budget consideration for me. But none of these costs would have been significant for our funders.
  • Support grantees’ participation in cohort-based leadership development programs. Such programs often offer multiple benefits: personal development, concrete knowledge development, and incredible network development. In 2011 while still serving on staff at EPIP, I participated in Selah, a leadership development program for Jewish nonprofit and social-justice leaders organized by Bend the Arc, funded by Nathan Cummings Foundation, and with content facilitated by Rockwood Leadership Institute. With a supportive board, my organization paid for registration and travel for two retreats. The network and learning was so valuable that I just paid my own way to attend an all-cohort retreat, where I got to see and experience the whole alumni network in one place. It was a powerful experience; I learned a ton, saw old friends, and met some incredible new people, all of whom share a common experience and baseline leadership language through the program.

Thankfully, some insightful funders have created the Network of Network Funders (once again, yes, it is more than a little “meta”!) to advance their own knowledge on how to better support and connect their grantees. Hopefully, this is just the beginning. By better understanding the power of networks and actively supporting them, funders can help organizations build meaningful relationships that will increase their talent, effectiveness, and social impact.

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Are @NYTimes and #NextGenDonors Just Plain Ignorant About Nonprofits?

The New York Times shamefully no longer has a reporter assigned to cover philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. I believe the Times has also dropped its annual “Giving” section, a special segment of the newspaper that was timed with the charitable tone of America’s winter holidays.

So now every article they publish about our field is written by a reporter who is an expert in something else for which the Times has a full section – business, politics, sports, etc. – and likely a “newby” to our field. And there is no aggregated place to read this reporting, as there is with weddings and cars.

This reflects the inter-disciplinary, multi-issue and all-encompassing nature of the nonprofit sector. It also means the sector is omni-present but also completely invisible in and of itself. And it means The New York Times is chronically playing catch-up and under-attending to the scope, scale and import of this sphere.

Unfortunately, this state of things at the Times reflects the broader reality of our society.

Luckily, the latest piece, Family Foundations Prepare for the Next Generation, is by reporter Paul Sullivan, who seems to have a decent grasp on philanthropy – at least from the taxation and wealth angle. And it focuses on a useful report from serious people and institutions with deep experience in the field. The featured exemplars are more serious people who have been involved with Resource Generation (which unfortunately gets no play in this article) and other next-gen philanthropy groups over time.

This study, produced by our excellent colleagues Michael Moody and Sharna Goldseker at Grand Valley State University’s Dorothy Johnson Center for Philanthropy and 21/64, respectively, offers an important benchmark in understanding how generational and demographic changes will continue to shift the nonprofit sector in the coming decades. It is an important step toward understanding how funders and other influential leaders can proactively prepare for generational change on the boards and staffs of both nonprofits and the foundation themselves.

In terms of the content of the study’s findings, there are many things to dig into, and I have not made a complete analysis of all of it yet.

But I want to say one thing that I find a bit disappointing: the insidious and supposedly business-oriented notion of “measurable the outcomes” of nonprofits seems to have crept into the mindset of Millennial donors.

Is this part and parcel with the influence of technology on this cohort of young folks? Is it the influence of “philanthrocapitalism” (do your own Google search on that) and “venture philanthropy”? Or simply the hegemonic influence of the market on the public square?

Whatever the underlying causes, I do not see this necessarily positive trend. There is a reason many call the nonprofit arena the “social sector” — and not the social science sector. Nonprofits and philanthropy are all about human beings, quality of life, relationships and communities. These are often – not always – subjective in nature, not objective. While sometimes philanthropy is about hard cash, it only works as soft power. So hard numbers do not always tell the story where “soft numbers” might do the job.

The idea of obsessively measuring social change, and importing business frameworks into nonprofits, offers a  complex set of challenges that I hope to explore further on other posts on this blog. Meanwhile, for eloquent and nuanced analyses on the misnomers of this thinking, I recommend two recent pieces:

At the end of the day, it is good news that someone (or some ones) at The New York Times continue(s) to assign reporters to cover charitable giving and the next generation of leaders in our field – even if it is an uncoordinated affair. And it is important that thoughtful young inheritors and wealth earners consider carefully how they want to make philanthropy more effective – including learning why some things are best unmeasured.

As this field continues to serve America as an engine of economic growth and job creation, let’s hope the New York Times and young wealthy folks only increase their deep understanding of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

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The Talent Agenda: How Can We Support Nonprofit Employees?

Is there really a leadership crisis in the nonprofit sector?

In the first post on my new monthly column at the great new site, I argue that the social sector has the talent it needs to do great work, but foundations and organizations need to invest more in developing nonprofit employees and their careers.

Please check out the new post, and continue to follow me here as well as on


Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment Blog – More than a pipeline: a new vision for nonprofit leadership development

Thanks to Allison Jones and the other good folks over at for referencing my most recent piece on this blog on their blog! Here’s their post: More than a pipeline. Given their large budget, they were able to percure much better graphics than me 🙂 Excited to have this blog featured on the website of an amazing organization that I love, and, in proud full disclosure, on whose Board I serve.

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Nonprofit Careers: Links in a Chain

Earlier this year I worked with Putnam Community Investment Consulting on a research initiated dubbed Generating Change when I was E.D. at Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy. At one point, we were trying to develop a graphic image to represent how career pathways look amongst nonprofit talent and leaders.

We called upon the commonly used analogy of the nonprofit leadership “pipeline”. Here’s a picture:

Am I in a Pipeline?

But a few things didn’t sit quite well with me. I had to ask: is the “pipeline” the most useful analogy? Continue reading

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A Bottleneck on the Nonprofit Leadership Highway

A bottleneck is building-up on the nonprofit sector’s leadership highway.

With many years of productivity and health ahead of them, Baby Boomers who lead nonprofit organizations face difficulty with the notion of traditional retirement. After pouring their energy and commitment into social change, they have a hard time imagining doing something different. After sacrificing earning potential and benefits in exchange for meaningful, world-changing careers, they may also have a hard time imagining what is next. And after the Great Recession decimated their nest-eggs, they may have a financially tough time walking away from work.

Sitting behind them on the road are Generation Xers, who are stuck in the middle of the traffic jam in mid-career positions with few opportunities to move up in their organizations. Some of them have grown tired of waiting and created their own lanes – started their own organizations and initiatives when they could not assert their ideas or get their needs met within existing institutions.

Then there are the Millennials, who are waiting anxiously on the on-ramps.  Continue reading

Posted in careers, funders, generations, leadership, pipeline, retirement | 1 Comment

Hello world!

Greetings readers!

I am starting this blog to share ideas and research from my joint fellowship at Tides Foundation and NYU Wagner’s Research Center for Leadership in Action.

The goal of my fellowship is to examine if and how funders can increase effectiveness by investing in the human capital of the social sector and social movements.

I look forward to your feedback!

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