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As a generation of nonprofit leaders approaches retirement and the economic climate continues to stress financial resources, organizations in the social sector should shift their approaches to planning, governance and investment, according to a new report presented Tuesday, September 15. 

The findings of the report, Leadership New England, Essential Shifts for a Thriving Nonprofit S..., were presented to about 100 directors, Board members, and staff representing a wide range of organizations that deliver basic needs, youth, health, education, arts, and other social programs in the New Haven region. 

“You are the heart of Greater New Haven. Consider this to be a report from your cardiologist,” said William W. Ginsberg, President and CEO of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, which funded the report along with Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, The Boston Foundation, Barr Foundation, and other foundations and charitable organizations in New England.

While nonprofits have proven to be resilient in the face of an economic downturn, many rely on operating models that are not sustainable, according to the report, based on surveys taken from 1200 nonprofit leaders and Board members throughout New England. 

The survey results show: leaders are overworked and stressed about cash flow; staff is underpaid and not given adequate professional development; and directors and Boards do not share an understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

A lack of planning for a new generation of leadership is one of the biggest issues facing the nonprofit sector, according to the report. Overall, more than half of the nonprofit leaders responding to the survey (53%) are 55 or older. In the New Haven region, 63% of the leaders are over 55.

Hez Norton, co-author of the report who presented its findings, said that executive directors don’t discuss succession planning because they are afraid of giving their Boards the false impression they want to leave. Likewise, Boards don’t raise the issue out of a fear of upsetting their directors.

“It’s a third rail conversation,” Norton said.

Norton proposed shifting the framework for the discussion away from succession planning, which focuses on an individual, and toward creating a sustainability plan that examines the vulnerabilities of the organization and its choices for the future. 

Other findings included shifting the vision of Board governance beyond short-term fundraising and investing in leadership development and high-quality staff. 

Shaye Roscoe, Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Lower Naugatuck Valley, said the findings resonated with her experience during a panel discussion following the presentation. Shortly after assuming her leadership role in 2013, Roscoe said she identified the need for a strategic plan and staff training and secured private funding to support the efforts. 

“That was a game changer for us,” Roscoe said. 

Andrew Eder, a philanthropist who has sat on many nonprofit Boards, said that better training is needed for Board members.

“Most Board members don’t know what their roles are. They don’t see staff as equals, which they are. It requires training,” Eder said.

The panel moderator, Shelly Saczynski, of United Illuminating Holdings and a Board member of The Community Foundation, concluded the event with The Foundation’s longstanding commitment to strengthening nonprofits in Greater New Haven.

“The Community Foundation believes in and will continue support capacity building, leadership training, and general operating funding for the important work of our local nonprofit organizations,” Saczynski said.

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