PERSPECTIVE l Developing the Next Generation of Social Change Leaders

by Nicole Lindsay and Meghan Lowney We have the great privilege of supporting the development of rising social change leaders in Connecticut.  Through our leadership programs and in conversations with individual leaders over the years, we've listened and learned.  It's clear that rising leaders are passionate about social change and want to have greater impact. This desire is similar to what we hear from executive directors and other senior nonprofit leaders who grapple with serving constituents and building sustainable organizations despite the challenges of limited resources and the ever-growing complexity of social issues.  We know that the people on our teams are mission-critical. And we know that they need professional development and support to get the job done well.PageLines- CTperspective.jpg

But knowing and doing are two different things.  Even though talent is an organization’s most important asset, nonprofits routinely fail to invest in human capital development. The communities we care about so much depend on our effectiveness, yet we don’t implement and fund strategies that enable staff retention, growth and achievement.

All too often, our day-to-day organizational realities trump our desire for long-term organizational and social impact.  A tension between the immediate and important exists because, despite our efforts, most of our constituents are underserved.   As responsible stewards of funding and support, we respond by investing as much as possible to immediately and directly meet the needs of our constituents.   Consequently, we make too little room in our budgets for leadership development.  Organizational cultures neglect leadership practice.   This shortsighted—albeit honorable— approach limits leadership development and diminishes the social sector’s impact.  Connecticut’s social impact potential necessitates more investment now in the people who will lead the sector in the future. We will go farther, faster, if we refocus our attention to building leaders.

So, how might individual organizations expand investment in rising leaders and get better results? We have a few low-cost, as well as more resource-intensive, strategies to suggest. But first, it’s important to share a key assumption, grounded both in research and our own experiences:  leaders are made, not born.  They are "made" through deliberate practice including their own efforts to reflect, proactively seek and use feedback and take on stretch opportunities. They need support for this work including the guidance, feedback and investment of more seasoned leaders.  Everyone can learn to lead.lead quote

Suggested next steps for advancing your leadership development efforts:

  • Envision Your Next Generation Leadership Team—Clarify your vision of the team that your organization will need for future success. A longer-term view will help cultivate a leadership development mindset. Identify what your rising leaders will need to know and do in the future and determine what strategies would best support their development.
  • Be Deliberate about Diversity— As we look to the future, we know that nonprofit organizations must achieve more ethnic, racial, socio-economic and experiential diversity. Constituents and other stakeholders, including rising leaders, expect their organizations to be actively working to increase diversity and very much want to be a part of helping achieve that outcome. Proactively work to discover untapped talent and potential both internally and externally.
    • Set Goals and Create a Plan That Works—Whether an organization’s budget is big or small, leadership development must be prioritized to get results. Determine your organizational goals and measurable outcomes that you anticipate. Engage leaders at every level for input. Ensure that all stakeholders understand the plan and your commitment to leadership development. Craft a plan and a process to check in on progress and evaluate your growing bench of talent.
    • Establish a Realistic Budget for Leadership Development—Over time, increase investment in growth and learning. While there are lower-cost ways to support leader development (leveraging existing resources and processes) you will likely find that you should fund external programs and coaching for specific support and outcomes.
  • Invest in Targeted Individual Leadership Development—Every team member, and certainly your high-potential rising leaders, ought to have an individual leadership development plan that focuses on stretch assignments and areas for growth. Younger leaders want and need feedback. They also want to know how their efforts are helping the organization meet its goals. Encourage your rising leaders to grow their support networks in order to build sustainable relationships inside and outside of the organization. Create a culture in which leaders are expected to ask for feedback, practice and reflect on their leadership efforts, and yes, sometimes fail and try again.
  • Leverage Your Nonprofit’s Most Important Leadership Development Asset—The senior nonprofit team is your most important leadership development asset: not just because they are driving the organization’s critical work, but because rising leaders crave their guidance, insight and direction. Invest time, even if it’s over lunch periodically, to meet with, mentor and coach rising social sector leaders.

If developing the next generation of social change leaders was easy, every nonprofit would already be doing it. It’s tough to change our organizational cultures in order to prioritize leadership development.  But, as they say, the change starts with us.

Nicole Lindsay, JD, MBA is the Director of Leadership Development at The ZOOM Foundation and author of “The MBA Slingshot for Women:  Using Business School to Catapult Your Career” (Praeger 2014).    Meghan Lowney, MSW is the Executive Director at The ZOOM Foundation.  Find out more about their leadership development programs at and  This article first appeared in Nonprofit Advantage, a publication of the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits


CT by the Numbers publishes opinion articles of 600 words or less.  Submissions should be emailed to  Perspectives are published at the discretion of CT by the Numbers.