Passion Plus Knowledge: Educating For Nonprofit Stewardship

Crucial junctures in society are crucial junctures for our nonprofit sector. How we lead, work and collaborate in these historically fraught times across simultaneous crises of equity, justice, health, environment and democracy does more than reflect how we do good for our communities, it models the behaviors we hope for in our future nonprofit leaders.

For our most entrenched and historically rooted societal challenges, nonprofit leaders from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, combined with knowledge gained through different avenues, continue to emerge as necessary components for functioning — and thriving — civil society. Our future nonprofit sector will see a burgeoning number of leaders who have focused some part of their career on learning the distinctions of our sector.

Whether just starting their careers at this moment, seeking to pivot their long for-profit or government careers to mission-based organizations, or serving as dedicated and consistent donors of time or resources, nonprofit leaders increasingly will need some form of non-profit-specific or cross-sector education. In addition, nonprofit leadership requires a deep understanding of the relevant beneficiary community, which may include those insights gained through lived experience.

Passion for mission is required, but passion alone cannot be enough for some of the most complex work facing nonprofits and the communities they serve. Global in scope, historically entrenched in the making, many of our massive societal issues require cross-sector collaboration, fiscal sophistication, an understanding of technology and its power and attendant liabilities, transformative data-based inquiry and ethical considerations that are unique to our mission-forward organizations and initiatives. Nonprofit-specific education and training, whether formal, informal or experiential, ratchet up our sector’s professionalism and credibility as we steward enormous sums of money and resources donated by others toward our communities and beneficiaries, including those resources strategically aligned with for-profit and government initiatives.

In the debate as to whether the nonprofit sector will be helped or hindered by the continuing “professionalization” of leaders and managers, we start with passion: passion for mission will always be the first and foremost requirement for successful work in our sector. To leverage that passion, enter education in one of myriad forms: sound and relevant educational resources, whether formal or informal, mentoring, experiential or apprenticeship, volunteering. Our sector runs the gamut from small nonprofits to massive foundations and membership organizations; needs for leadership and management training vary and should be appropriately scaled.

All leaders in our sector, however, share the bottom line of shepherding donated resources to the public good. For a sector responsible for billions of dollars in the donative stream, all to be directed to the public good to help remedy some of the major issues of our time, we will need leaders who have been exposed to major initiatives and ideas of current leaders, cutting-edge techniques, financial conversancy, technology that may aid the work, and even reviews of less successful or even failed ventures from which all leaders may learn.

Today’s leaders, professionals and volunteers have more opportunities for education and training in the goals, ethics and implementation of nonprofit work than ever before. Witness the flourishing of new formal nonprofit degree programs, whether full degrees at the undergraduate, masters or even doctoral level, certificates of professional achievement, or online or in person trainings, workshops and tool kits. Social justice degree programs abound, with nonprofit aspects key in the formal pedagogy and experiential training. From the sector-wide conference to the targeted online webinar, nonprofit leaders, managers, professionals, donors, board members and volunteers all have tremendous amounts of guidance and professional resources at their fingertips, some at cost, some expense free.

This spectrum of resources notwithstanding, leadership resources and education are not meaningful without concomitant access by the intended audience. Incumbent upon our sector, one based on trust and credibility, is elevating leadership positions that reflect the demographics of our communities, including beneficiaries and historically marginalized populations.
The health of our future nonprofit work is dependent on making a tremendous commitment to and investment in our future diverse leaders, and we shoulder that work together, as funders, educators, managers and collaborators. As baseline suggestions, we could start with the following:

  • Nonprofit fellowships funded by foundations that help pay the salary of emerging nonprofit leaders from diverse backgrounds for two years at a nonprofit, with mentoring and/or formal coursework that is nonprofit or cross-sector specific;
  • Graduate degree scholarships for students with a minimum number of years of work experience who would like to continue nonprofit work at the leadership level or pivot a career into nonprofit work;
  • Widely available loan forgiveness programs for undergraduate and graduate students who commit to work in the nonprofit sector for a specific period of time;
  • Formal mentoring programs between current leaders and younger potential leaders, whether undergraduate or even high school students;
  • Knowledge transfer by nonprofit leaders who began their work in the nonprofit-intense 1960s and 1970s, now preparing for or in retirement but with much to share, with younger generations of potential and current leaders;
  • Increased open source webinars, databases, research tools at think tanks and universities; and,
  • Nonprofit journalism, both in coverage and its own corporate structure, for disseminating high-level current analysis and future thinking for the benefit of nonprofits and the communities they serve.

Our decisions today to open our leadership, expand our knowledge base and make resources easily accessible are critical to tomorrow’s leaders, as we seek creative and informed solutions to pressing issues in civil society across the globe and in our U.S. communities. With passion and knowledge combined, tomorrow’s nonprofit visionaries will be prepared to meet our most intractable societal challenges, even those not yet imagined.


Cindy M. Lott, Esq., is associate professor of practice, academic director, M.S Nonprofit Management at Columbia University in New York City.