10 years from now, who will lead us?

Photo by Jay Johnson, cropped CC BY 3.0

The nonprofit sector is experiencing a leadership crisis and as funders we need to step up. Since we first opened our doors, we've invested in building the capacity and leadership of environmental organizations in the Northwest. We know more needs to be done.

With our sunset on the horizon, we've expanded our leadership development grantmaking to include the next generation of conservation leaders. Our work is focused on building a stronger bench of emerging leaders to effectively manage and lead the environmental movement in the years to come. To inform our thinking, we did some deep listening and found that current mid-career leaders are in need of professional development, particularly opportunities that provide growth beyond their current job functions.

We invited Cory Sbarbaro (co-creator and lead instructor of the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute), and Michelle Gislason, a longtime trainer, coach, and consultant in the nonprofit sector, to explore whether a mid-career nonprofit professional program would be an effective investment. They conducted a scan of existing opportunities and held focus groups with mid-career nonprofit leaders in the Northwest conservation community.

The findings were clear:

"As a sector, we absolutely need to pay greater attention to cultivating the next generation of leadership. Being a leader in a high-impact nonprofit organization is becoming an increasingly complex undertaking. We can and should do more to prepare and inspire people for these roles." Cory Sbarbaro

And affirmed by nonprofit executives:

"We need to establish pathways to leadership for the next generation. And provide coaching and leadership development to help our younger staff take on more responsibility."

And emerging leaders:

"If there was a training for nonprofit leadership, I'd do it. It's important that trainings speak to the very invisible structural parts of an organization, including issues of long-term sustainability."

A program designed for mid-career nonprofit leaders

Using a framework focused on organizational sustainability, Sbarbaro and Gislason have now designed an intensive training program covering topics including the elements of strategy formation, adaptive leadership and change management, equity and environmental justice, financial leadership and management, and effective governance.

An infographic called Elements of Organizational Sustainability

We know that being a strong leader isn't just about organizational know-how. Great leaders also know themselves. To that end, this program includes a series of elements designed to foster individual reflection and growth, including: 360-degree feedback, creation of a personal leadership network, boundary management and resilience training, and professional coaching.

The 360-degree review will systematically collect candid feedback about job performance, skills, and behaviors from those who work closely with each participant, while a one-on-one coaching component will allow the program leaders to conduct three sessions with each participant to guide them through this review and an individual development plan.

An infographic called Creating Resilient & Responsive Leaders

The program is designed not only to enable participants to grow in their current roles, but also to give them tools to help their organizations grow and evolve. Facilitated dialogue with each participant's executive director will ensure the experience benefits the organization overall, and not just the individual participants.

Building a strong cohort

This training is designed for individuals who have been identified as emerging leaders interested in furthering their careers in the environmental sector. They will be mid-career professionals who want to assume greater leadership roles in their organizations. Criteria for selection will include a commitment to the field, individual readiness, and organizational investment.

We expect to see participants from across the Northwest who reflect the demographic, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the communities in which they are working.


In November, our board approved a grant to fund the first year of this newly minted Mid-career Institute for Environmental Leaders and Managers. Recruiting for the first five-day training will begin in early 2017, with the training scheduled for late spring. We are prepared to pay the full freight of our grantees' participation, at about $5,000 per person. And we encourage other foundations to join us in sponsoring talented mid-career leaders so their grantees can benefit from this program, too. If you want to know more, please get in touch with us or follow us on Twitter.

Share your insights

We live in uncertain times. Reality is shifting under our feet. But some things continue to be true. Tomorrow's leaders need to be developed today. They need a solid grounding in organizational administration, as well as the cultural competence, resilience, and professional networks to navigate a changing political and demographic landscape.

Do you have ideas for supporting emerging leaders? What do you think the next generation of leaders needs to know to be most effective in this uncertain and constantly changing world? Have you participated in any leadership trainings that were transformational for your work?

We're trying something new here and expecting to learn along the way. We look forward to continuing this conversation with you and we'll share more about the program and how it's working over the coming year!