Connecting To Meet Today's Challenges

Young Leaders and Their Challenges in the Nonprofit Sector

by Jimeka Holloway

Young Leaders and Their Challenges in the Nonprofit Sector

Kari Mirkin, Co-Founder/President of the Cleveland Chapter of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, and I recently had a conversation where I asked her about her viewpoint on leadership in nonprofit organizations and the sector, the challenges that leaders face as organizational leaders, as well as the current trends she believes are on the horizon for the sector.

JH: What does it mean to be a young leader in the nonprofit sector? What are the challenges?

KM: Young professionals in the sector also have the opportunity and responsibility to advocate for the seriousness and deliberateness of their career choices among their for-profit counterparts.  I didn’t fall into a nonprofit career by accident or choose nonprofit work as a backup in case I couldn’t make it in the business world. Many nonprofit workers have chosen to pursue a career in the sector because of the many intangible benefits and challenges it provides despite what often amounts to more stress and less pay

Young leaders have to be careful not to let others define them by the fact that they are “young”— and not let themselves be put “in a box”. It’s true these individuals offer their organizations access to a new generation of donors and volunteers, but they also have their unique skills and aptitudes that they bring to the table regardless of their age.  Natural leaders may have a lot more to offer than just a fresh perspective or a familiarity with trends or social media tools. For example, a young leader may be charged with "go do social media.” Don't be reduced to “young professional” trends -- young people are sometimes seen as connections to other young people as opposed to being seen as someone with a new approach to accomplish the mission -- I think there is room for both.

Young nonprofit leaders are also challenged to create their own opportunities for developing leadership skills. YNPN Cleveland provides an opportunity for committee members to hone these skills. These individuals may not be asked to contribute to a traditional nonprofit board, as it seems the time and talent they are willing to offer can take a back seat to the “treasure” that young professionals in more lucrative fields can offer up through their employment connections

JH: How has leadership in the sector changed in recent years?

KM: My view is limited after only five years in the sector.  Leaders have to be quicker to evaluate and integrate emerging trends while continuing to meet the organization’s mission: legal trends, trends in communication and technology, cultural trends, and sector trends such as the calls for increased accountability and data collection. There will always be trends, but the speed at which trends now emerge and catch on present a different challenge for current leaders.

Nonprofit leaders seem to be making a move toward better integrating young professionals in their activities - not necessarily more among paid staff, but definitely among organizational “friends”.  New donor groups and associate boards still focus somewhat on grooming young professionals to be lifelong donors, but there also seems to be a movement toward actually letting these individuals make contributions to mission-related activities and governance.

The growing number of individuals with advanced degrees in nonprofit administration, such as the MNO, beginning to take on lead roles may have an effect on the future of sector leadership. There is value to having people at the leadership level that have more varied backgrounds, though, so it will be interesting to see what happens when more and more leaders have less specific knowledge.  Will their interactions with the direct service professionals they work with be altered, for example?

JH: What areas of the nonprofit sector are particularly influential right now? How do current trends impact the sector?

KM: One thing I love about the sector is that there is a cause for everyone and that nowadays it is getting easier to find those causes and make a contribution, monetary or otherwise. Everyone can find something that speaks to his or her passions, even if it’s thousands of miles away.

Virtual tools for giving to selected causes are now easier to access than ever.  Social media and the Internet make it so easy for people to see what they want to give to. All prospective donors and volunteers are being bombarded with more options than ever before – not only do we receive direct mail solicitations, we see stories on the news, online, and through social media all vying for our attention and our dollars. Organizations have to continually explore novel ways of getting their message out there.  The way people are giving now -- goes beyond leadership. What I like about the nonprofit sector is there is a cause out there for virtually anything. Any area of the sector can find support a little easier than they used to, if they know how to use to the tools they can narrow in on supporters in a way that direct mail could never do.  This is an issue of increasing awareness of a cause but not necessarily more money -- so many nonprofits are using the same tools that you can find out about them in any way.

Beyond trends in giving and tools for giving, I think trends in funding continue to have the potential to really shape the landscape. if funders adopt a cause and promise dollars to make change in a certain area, organizations may change course somewhat to access those funds and remain relevant, and as that money moves around, so do the jobs.

posted September 11, 2012

Jimeka Holloway is a Doctor of Management student at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University with over 15 years of creating, managing, and delivering programming for nonprofit organizations. As CEO of Collaborative Endeavors, Inc. she works to build organizational capacity through collaboration, fund development, and community engagement. She has taught cross-cultural adaptation strategies to health science students as an adjunct instructor at Cleveland State University and trained over 4000 nonprofit leaders as the Training Coordinator of the Foundation Center-Cleveland.


Jimeka is a certified urban youth minister and certified diversity management professional known for her keen ability to incubate new ideas with an asset-based perspective. She has co-founded several organizations including TriFYRE, a faith-based social enterprise for creative entrepreneurs and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) – Cleveland, which strives to connect and cultivate future leaders in the nonprofit community by engaging young professionals, supporting career development, and offering networking opportunities.