Stepping off the ladder: Can alternative organizational structures change the career trajectory of young professionals?

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How many times have you heard about climbing the career ladder? In the nonprofit sector, the top rung is most often the executive director. The typical nonprofit executive director is the expert generalist - they design, build and evaluate successful programs, they understand the ins and outs of governance and charitable regulations, they fundraise, manage media relations, hire and supervise staff and liaise with the board. There is so much responsibility and skill concentrated in this one role and labour force statistics tell us that many executive directors are quickly approaching retirement. This presents a challenge to the nonprofit sector with anticipated staffing and talent gaps.

Is the solution simply training the next generation? There is an abundance of youth-led initiatives. Could they replace the many retiring executive directors? Maybe not. In Jodie Shupac’s article, Are you cut out to be an executive director? several nonprofit professionals discuss how entrepreneurial young people they know are not likely to be attracted to established organizations or the traditional role of an executive director. There is so much required of one person to keep an organization afloat that the position often looks exhausting rather than exciting. We will need eager and qualified people to fill these executive director positions but there is also an opportunity to shift how we work and share skills within the sector to reduce our demands on an individual role.

One way the sector is supporting leaders to manage initiatives while reshaping the executive director role, is with shared platforms. Shared platforms offer an opportunity for initiatives to plug into an existing organization that can provide the administrative functions they need. This frees up leaders from single-handedly building and supervising the administrative functions, one of the challenges often cited with the traditional executive director role. For example, as part of a shared platform, an initiative has access to expertise on charitable regulations and financial management rather than having to build the expertise independently. This model can reduce isolation and duplication while valuing the expertise that each initiative’s leadership brings to its particular field.

Whether it’s sharing space, governance, staff or administration, there is a lot of be said for sharing across organizations and initiatives. Patricia Evans and Barbara Grantham discuss in their Charity Village series that sharing services can offer many benefits including: increased access to expertise and talent that a single organization couldn’t afford; increased revenue potential; and increased service effectiveness. Sharing can also help the nonprofit sector support youth-led initiatives and their leadership, benefiting the nonprofit sector for years to come. As part of a shared platform, a leader is building the skills of leading their own venture in tandem with access to expertise on human resources, financial management and other organizational necessities.

Shared platforms provide space in the nonprofit sector for youth-led initiatives to thrive. Youth-led initiatives tend to be entrepreneurial in nature - tackling complex issues often with little money but incredible people power and passion. There is an experiential nature to these initiatives where the leadership learns by doing. These leadership talents haven’t been built from climbing a traditional career ladder and carefully acquiring new skills and job responsibilities with age. Instead, these young leaders have jumped in and started their own initiatives. There is exciting potential for these experimental and risk-embracing approaches to transform not only society but also the structure of nonprofits and the executive director role.

Shared platforms offer a solution to support and make space for young talent while reshaping the nonprofit model. There are a number of organizations offering platforms that combine administrative support and mentoring support for youth-led initiatives. One example is The Base, a new project at Tides Canada Initiatives.

The Base’s equation for community-based changemaking

The Base emerged out of an interest in adapting the Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI) model so that it could support emerging initiatives, often led by young people. These emerging initiatives are often youth-led and entrepreneurial in nature. They are typically smaller, less stable, with limited yet dedicated staff leading them.

The TCI model requires each project to be of a certain size and scope and for project directors to have an experienced leadership team behind them. TCI offers a shared administrative platform and provides administrative support (including governance, compliance, human resources, financial management and risk management) to a range of internal social justice and environmental projects. It recruits projects that fit its mission but seek an alternative to setting up an independent organization, reducing duplication. Instead, you share these common administrative needs with like-minded projects by joining the TCI organization.

The challenge was to find the right equation to harness the benefits of the Tides Canada Initiatives model with learning and skill building for emerging initiatives. The Base creates a shared platform for emerging initiatives by combining administrative support with capacity building and opportunities for collective learning and action.

This particular equation includes some additions to the shared administrative platform at TCI. While it includes all the components of the TCI platform, it also includes proactive support to build the capacity of each initiative and opportunities to connect and learn from other initiatives. This might include coaching on grantwriting, sharing tips with other initiatives on how to develop good contracts, or pairing an initiative up with a mentor who can share their experience building strategic plans.

Rather than requiring the initiative to understand all components of running an organization, The Base provides a shared model where initiatives have a community of professionals to rely on and learn from. For established nonprofits that offer a shared platform, it provides the organization a new way to support younger leadership by being a partner rather than establishing only supervisory relationships where young people are hired into the organization.

Seed to Table on The Base

Erika Pulfer, founder of Seed to Table, joined The Base early on. Seed to Table is a youth-centred food security and food justice initiative in the Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park (KGO) neighbourhood in Toronto, Ontario. The project works with young people, parents and families to understand root causes of food insecurity, build capacity, facilitate community mobilization around food issues, and meet community goals around food, health and youth engagement. Through Erika’s leadership, Seed to Table has had made a real impact in the neighbourhood, including launching community gardens cared for by local youth and a variety of education events for residents. Erika is passionate and articulate. As part of The Base, Erika’s leadership and expertise in local food issues and the community is paired with the administrative expertise of TCI and the knowledge of fellow initiatives on The Base.

“The Base allows us to concentrate on meeting our program goals and doing what we're good at - working in community - while providing enabling administrative support,” says Pulfer. “As a small initiative, that goes through different phases of funding and staffing levels, The Base provides us with consistent support and access to administrative expertise.”

Erika is leading her own initiative, but not in isolation. She has access to colleagues that specialize in administrative processes such as payroll and finance, peers that are growing their own charitable ventures and the Director of The Base to help her navigate these and other resources.

“The Base, along with other shared models, provides social innovators with an opportunity to strengthen and refine their leadership and project management skills in a supportive environment,” says Jenn Miller, interim director of The Base. “Emerging leaders have the space to implement their vision for change but are not required to be experts on the intricacies of nonprofit and charitable management. As a result, the mission and achieving impact remain at the forefront.”

Shared platforms like The Base build opportunities for youth-led projects to thrive, therefore enriching their impact and building the talent of their leaders which will benefit the nonprofit sector. The model provides opportunities for nonprofit startups to lead a project, but have access to colleagues with specialized expertise (eg. human resources, professional networks) at the same time, rather than being isolated to problem solve on their own. As a result, leaders on The Base have the experience of leading initiatives, and also familiarity with the expertise commonly available only to larger organizations. This unique expertise is invaluable to the nonprofit talent pool.

Will it fill the anticipated executive director gaps or reshape the executive director role itself? Probably both. Shared platforms offer a space for us to experiment with new solutions and leaders. Maybe instead of moving up the ladder, we've got a jungle gym where you get to lead and build skills throughout your career.


Jillian Witt is a nonprofit professional who has recently moved to Seattle, Washington from Toronto, Ontario. In Toronto, Jillian was a Senior Project Specialist for Tides Canada and board member of Laidlaw Foundation. In her new city, she is a Youth Venture Ally at Ashoka Seattle and passionate volunteer with Feet First. You can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.

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