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Views from the Talent Pool: Lessons from the 2012 Independent Sector Conference

by Kevin Flynn, Vice President of Recruitment

Earlier this month, I was fortunate to join an amazing group of peers and colleagues at the Independent Sector Conference. While IS has historically been one of the premiere events for nonprofit and philanthropic leaders to talk shop, this year’s conference felt anything but “business as usual.” Here are a few things that stood out for me:

1) The sector is more complex – and less united—- and that’s ok. Independent Sector’s tag line is “a vital voice for all.” As the sector continues to rapidly evolve, it’s increasingly difficult to find one unifying voice that represents the interests of an incredibly diverse group of nonprofits, social enterprises, B Corps, venture philanthropy firms, traditional foundations, and c4’s of different sizes, mission areas and levels of sophistication. 

This diversity of interests spurs healthy debate. In fact, IS structured many of its break-out sessions in debate format, allowing for conflicting viewpoints to be shared, even if they weren’t easily resolved.  This created an atmosphere of passion and engagement. We’re up against new questions and challenges (cuts to the charitable deduction, nonprofit perks for for-profit social enterprises) with new voices at the table.  I walked away from a number of conversations believing that this depth of engagement will lead to more creativity and better solutions that include all of the different ways we work for the common good.

2) Talent and diversity were belles of the ball…..again. It was hard to throw a stick without hitting someone talking about ways to attract top talent or increase staff diversity.  While these topics are no strangers to the spotlight, there’s increasing frustration that the sector has approached both with more talk than action.  What was refreshing at Independent Sector was to see tangible concepts and initiatives finally gaining traction, and just as important, getting funded. 

The most exciting mind-shift around these topics was “organization-agnostic talent-development and diversity strategies.”  In other words, let’s stop trying to figure out how tiny, $1m nonprofits all throughout the country can build talent acquisition, retention and development programs on their own.  Instead, let’s focus collectively on programs that build talent and diversity for the entire sector.  With that in mind, it was great to hear about new training programs, new skill-building online resources specific to nonprofit professionals, and the work happening to increase the scope of leadership development programs like Public Allies and Management Leadership for Tomorrow.  Also, I was intrigued by the discussions around how we can participate in developing “tri-sector” athletes who have careers that span multiple sectors including nonprofit, public and private.  It’s energizing to think that we don’t have to live in fear of losing top talent to other sectors, but instead we can meaningfully contribute to tri-sector talent development and then aggressively compete to bring that leadership to our organizations. 

3) Millenials are trouble makers….and trouble is good! For the third year, I was able to attend the NGEN track of the IS conference which is specifically designed for emerging nonprofit leaders. While this generation enjoys a reputation of wanting to rise to the top without paying their dues, I consistently find their M.O. to be completely different. Yes this group is irreverent, but they’re questioning the status quo the ways Baby Boomers did thirty years ago. They’re not willing to continue to work within broken or ineffective structures, and they move rapidly to find better solutions. A great example of this was highlighted in the debate around the need to tear down the flawed power dynamics that exist between nonprofits and foundations that prevent both sides from creating authentic partnerships. 

At the same time, millenials are not all about “out with the old, in with the me.” They’re not disrespecting or devaluing the leadership of earlier generations.  They are, however, a creative and disruptive force.  The more the sector can embrace the disruption that each generation brings as they emerge into leadership roles the more we’ll collectively adapt, innovate and increase our effectiveness.

By the end of the conference, I was inspired, challenged, and more than a little exhausted. I can’t wait to continue to engage in these important conversations, and I am grateful to be part of such a diverse and evolving sector.  We may not be able to unite around one unifying voice, and frankly, I couldn’t be happier about that.  It’s the splintering, complexity, disagreement, disruption and innovation that will push us to better solutions for our communities most critical challenges.


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