What’s Changing for Nonprofit Managers: 7 Questions with Leslie Starsoneck

Leslie StarsoneckThe nonprofit sector is growing more quickly than the private sector, according to the U.S. government, and that development makes nonprofits one of the most vital components of American society. We asked Leslie Starsoneck, interim director of the M.A. in Nonprofit Management program at Adler University, to talk about the pressures facing today’s nonprofit managers. They may not answer to profit-driven shareholders like corporate executives do, but they still face mounting demands to prove their programs are fulfilling their promise to serve the public good.

In our Q&A, Starsoneck discussed:

> What today’s nonprofits do, and why they do it
The biggest changes in nonprofit needs in the past five years
Top trends for nonprofits in 2016
> Key characteristics of successful nonprofits
> Crucial skills for successful nonprofit managers
> The importance of social justice in nonprofit management
> Fundamentals of socially responsible practice in nonprofit management

Now, let’s get to Starsoneck’s questions and answers:

What is the state, or role, of nonprofits today?

Nonprofits represent a huge sector in our economy. Their growth has outpaced the private sector over the past five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When we use the term “nonprofits,” that includes healthcare, educational services, and the arts. The social services or human services sector within the nonprofit industry is typically where nonprofit management students are focused, and that sector is often tasked with addressing and solving complex social problems.

For example, there has been an explosion of collective-impact efforts that organize communities around complex social issues—like rates of poverty or illiteracy in young children—and design approaches and measures that are coordinated across a range of organizations and systems.

How have the needs of today’s nonprofit organizations changed? What are nonprofits’ most pressing needs today, compared with five years ago?

I’m not sure the most pressing needs are that much different than five years ago, although the expectations by public and private funders have changed, and are driving some of the needs for nonprofit change. The big ones are:

  • Nonprofits have always needed a diversified and sustainable funding base. That means not being overly reliant on grants or any one source that can ebb and flow, and putting together a compelling case for support that can be used to attract and grow donors, whether they are individuals, corporations, or others.
  • Funders are looking for measureable impact. In the old days, you might get funded if you were in desperate straits, whereas these days you will more likely be critiqued by a potential funder for being in a desperate condition. Impact no longer means the number of things you did, or the number of service units delivered to clients. It means: How did your effort change a person or a community’s condition? How do you prove the impact you had? And what does that impact mean in the short and long term?
  • Public-private partnerships are also different than they were five years ago, and in many ways, more exciting. The emergence of B Corps—corporations that pledge to be good community citizens and to put the interests of the community over shareholder interest—is huge, and represents a significant opportunity for nonprofits to partner with those companies for purposes of increased awareness and certainly resource development. Those corporations want to connect with charitable efforts and want their connections to have meaning, beyond writing a check. And with meaning, that check is likely to get larger.

The National Council of Nonprofits identified limited resources, increased demands, and advocacy as the top trends for 2016. How should nonprofit leaders and board members adapt to these trends?

Obviously, these trends and the other changes require a diverse set of technical skills on the part of nonprofit managers. Managers have a lot to juggle and must possess many different types of expertise: fundraising, marketing, advocacy, and research.

The board of directors is critical to ensuring the organization’s leader has the requisite skills and support to be successful. To that end, organizations must invest in leadership development for board and staff.

There has also been more focus over the past few years on the proper role of a board member. Gone are the days of sitting on a board. Today’s board members must actively serve, set, and oversee the implementation of strategic plans; understand the organization’s strengths and weaknesses; and be able to drive the necessary changes in order to be relevant and successful.

What are the characteristics of a successful nonprofit today?

I’ll answer that by pairing the characteristics with topics found in our nonprofit management program at Adler that support those characteristics.

  • Successful nonprofits know where they are going and how they are going to get there—through strategic planning.
  • They manage their risk—through succession planning, a sustainable funding model, and an effective board of directors.
  • What they do works and is what the people or communities affected by their success want.
  • They are nimble and are able to modify what they do based on political or regulatory changes.

What skills do today’s successful nonprofit leaders need to learn?

In order to be a successful nonprofit organization, two sets of strong leadership skills are required. One set must come from the board of directors and the other from top management, which in small- to medium-sized organizations is the executive director.

Executive directors need to understand the proper relationship between the board and the executive director, but are not responsible for managing the board. The board’s job is to hire and fire and evaluate the executive director, but the board often doesn’t embrace that responsibility and tasks the executive director with it.

Adler’s Nonprofit Management program focuses on social justice. How should nonprofits incorporate social justice within their organizations?

Nonprofits inherently serve the interests of social justice, but that means they must also live those values internally. For instance:

  • What does it mean for a nonprofit organization to be unable to offer a livable wage to its employees?
  • Does the organization’s leadership reflect the demographics of the community it serves, and/or the demographics of the people it serves?
  • How is conflict—between genders, between races—resolved within the organization?
  • And finally, how does the organization articulate its social justice goals and ensure that its constituents are a part of that development and that everyone representing the organization lives those goals?

What is socially responsible practice in nonprofit management?

Socially responsible practitioners understand and work to ensure community health, rather than simply provide services, according to The Socially Responsible Practice Project, a white paper that Adler published in 2012. While services are important—particularly those that are related to basic human needs like food, clean air, shelter, and safety—they do not by definition include efforts to address systemic issues and work to remove barriers.

For example, we have disproportionate representation of groups of people in many of our systems, including the corrections system and the child welfare system. Working to recognize disproportionate representation, educate about it, and advocate for change by proposing and working for specific solutions, is socially responsible practice in our Nonprofit Management program.

The ex-con who becomes homeless because he or she can’t find employment and struggles with unresolved mental health issues is where service need comes in. But changing the way we identify him or her and help way before entering into our systems is socially responsible practice in nonprofit management.

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