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The NP2020:Issues and Answers from the Next Generation report is out!

The report highlights discussion with over 100 nonprofit emerging leaders who participated in the NP2020 convening in July 2007. Our definition of an emerging leader in the nonprofit sector is an individual who is new to the sector or has been in the sector for a while that is ready to lead. An emerging leader can be of any age and have any amount of experience in the sector, but needs to have the drive to learn and commitment to the sector.

Emerging nonprofit leaders agreed that the leadership deficit is here, now, as our sector fails to provide adequate training and professional development opportunities. Mentoring in non-traditional ways, was mentioned in numerous discussions as a way to develop our sector’s future leadership. The group also highlighted structural challenges that create barriers to nonprofit careers. Finally, the group argued the nonprofit sector needs more diversity.

This convening was conducted in Open Space format, which allowed participants to create and lead discussions on topics they felt were relevant. A video of the conference follows this post to highlight the Open Space process.

This convening was organized by the Johnson Center in collaboration with its AIM Alliance partners, the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. This conference was also sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Lumina Foundation for Education and the Fremont Area Community Foundation.

The Johnson Center is a nonprofit academic center whose mission is to improve communities by the application of knowledge which unleashes the power of nonprofits, foundations and individuals.

We hope you find the information on this publication meaningful and we look forward to future discussion on creating effective leadership in the nonprofit sector.

Report PDF

Opening Segment

Inspiration for the Conference

Issues and Answers in Open Space

YNPN Survey Results

Defining Moments from the Conference

In July of 2007, the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership convened a meeting of over 100 current and future leaders in the nonprofit sector at Grand Valley State University to discuss the impending nonprofit leadership deficit. The conference titled NP2020: Issues and Answers From the Next Generation brought professionals from 12 states to Grand Rapids, Michigan for three days of Open Space discussion and story-sharing.

What is the Leadership Deficit?
According to the Bridgespan Group’s report entitled The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit,” over the decade from 2007-2016, nonprofits will need to attract and develop some 640,000 new senior leaders – the equivalent of 2.4 times the number currently employed. This statistic has draw attention to the current leadership development initiatives in the nonprofit sector, as well as problems related to attracting and retaining younger workers.

Several staff members at the Johnson Center had attended conferences and meetings where this issue was discussed, but they noticed a lack of younger workers’ voices in these discussion. NP2020 was targeted specifically at the next generation of nonprofit leaders, but included participants ranging in age from 21 to 60.

What is Open Space?
Open Space Technology could be called an Un-Meeting format. Participants come together to discuss a specific problem or topic, but beyond that are left to self organize. Harrison Owen, creator of Open Space Technologies (OST), notes that OST “enables people to experience a very different quality of organization in which self – managed work groups are the norm, leadership is a constantly shared phenomenon, diversity becomes a resource to be used instead of a problem to be overcome, and personal empowerment is a shared experience.” Attendees were encouraged to create and/or choose topics for discussion, and, took responsibility for facilitating the discussion, taking notes and remaining engaged in the process.


What Were the Results?

NP2020 incorporated two days of Open Space sessions. The first day was dedicated to identifying issues related to the Nonprofit Leadership Deficit. On the second day, Johnson Center staff reviewed the identified issues and challenged participants to brainstorm possible answers and solutions. Over the 2-day open space process, 28 discussions were conducted with topics ranging from leadership challenges, nonprofit organizational issues and, solutions to leadership development within the sector. It was clear in the discussion that the leadership deficit is happening here and now. Emerging leaders feel that they are not adequately prepared and supported to address the looming leadership challenges in the sector. The notes from these combined sessions yielded over 75 pages of text and 20 hours of video. Here are just a small sampling of the findings.


  • Generational Conflict is Real. Many impassioned discussions took place throughout the conference expressing the frustration that Gen X/Y workers and Baby Boomers feel towards each other. Baby Boomers sometimes feel that younger generations are not as dedicated to causes and to the sector in general as they were. Gen X/Y workers sometimes perceive that Baby Boomers employ command and control leadership styles and emphasize “seat time” in the office over true productivity.
  • Need for Mentorship. The participants talked extensively about the usefulness of mentorship and the need for more mentoring activities. Some of the feedback indicated a desire for formalized relationships, while some expressed a longing for experienced professionals to reach out more to new leaders.
  • New Career Paths. Young professionals talked about the possibilities for non-linear career paths that cross over traditional sector boundaries. They see no conflict in spending time in the nonprofit, for-profit, and government sectors over the course of a career. It seems possible now that an individual can serve a cause but do so in a variety of roles.
  • Degree Inflation and Work Experience. Some young professionals expressed concern that bachelor’s and graduate degrees are over-valued in the sector. Pursuing higher education can sometimes burden students with excessive loan debt, which makes it difficult to accept low-paying nonprofit jobs after graduation. Other participants are concerned that there are not enough entry-level or internship positions available in the sector and feel that they cannot gain the practical experience they need to succeed.


  • Funders Need to Support Infrastructure. Participants of all ages are convinced that the current funding realities in the nonprofit sector are shortchanging organizational infrastructure and staff capacity. By focusing their money only on program activities, both foundations and individual donors are forcing nonprofits to under-pay and under-develop staff. Participants suggested that nonprofits need to take responsibility to educate funders about the true costs of running an organization.
  • We Need to Have More Conversations. Many participants suggested that the conversation about the Leadership Deficit needs to continue. They requested that a foundation or national association convene a meeting of sector leaders and young professionals to form a concrete action plan to address these issues.
  • We Have to Learn to Work Together. Perhaps most importantly, participants of all ages agreed that all generations of the current workforce need to find ways to work with each other, appreciate each other’s strengths and learn from each other.

What’s Next?
The Johnson Center staff is busy analyzing all of the text and video material gathered during NP2020. We are excited by the richness of the discussions that took place and the powerful suggestions made by participants. In the coming months we will be releasing the detailed findings from this analysis and hope that is starts many, many more powerful discussions.

In the meantime, there are many ways that you can act to ensure the future of the nonprofit sector.

  1. Seek out mentors within your organization or your chosen field of work. Ask good questions and offer your mentor help when possible to make the relationship mutually beneficial.
  2. Mentor a peer or up and coming professional. Most of us have more experience than we give ourselves credit for. Practice your mentoring and leadership skills by taking a new intern, volunteer or co-worker under your wing.
  3. Participate in nonprofit networks and associations. There are many groups that offer professional and personal development for nonprofit professionals. Some are focused on a discipline, such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Others cater to a specific age group like the Young Nonprofit Professionals’ Network. Look around and you’re sure to find a group that appeals to your interests.

  4. -Maria Gajewski

Who are emerging leaders?

Emerging leaders are individuals within the nonprofit sector who are ready to lead. Emerging leaders can be of any age and have any amount of experience in the sector, but need to have the drive to learn and commitment to the sector.

Generation Breakdown

Silent Generation


Baby Boomers


Generation X


Millennial Generation


Questions about NP2020

Please forward any questions about the NP2020 Initiative or the NP2020: Issues and Answers from the Next Generation report to Thank you!

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