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Cultivating the Next Generation of Nonprofit Leaders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Karl Besel, Arturo Flores, Chae Young Chang and Tonya Thornton
July 28, 2023

Mexico and Colombia have provided both general and specialized medical services to their citizens since these countries implemented universal health care. Most of their respective populations rely on the public sector heavily for providing comprehensive health care and subsequently, population health and health system performance has dramatically improved. Universal health care, however, does not imply coverage for all people for all conditions. Limited medical coverage, dramatically complicated by subsidy systems and a fragmented delivery system, along with systemic poverty, income inequality and health illiteracy, have compelled nonprofit organizations to play pivotal roles in providing health education, financial assistance and supplementary care.

Executive leaders have been recognized, within both governmental and nonprofit organizations, for playing a pivotal role in organizational sustainability and viability. Leaders perpetuate “psychological centrality,” which fosters organizational innovation and viability, particularly in organizations with challenges in funding and legitimacy. Executives also are crucial in fostering an organization’s cultural norms and values, as well as sustaining innovation via transformational leadership.

In the rapidly changing field, the role of executives cannot be overstated in adapting their organization to this dynamic sector. Particularly, demographic and social changes yield new challenges in constructing strategic human resources management not only to secure talent and institutional knowledge but also to boost human capital and cultivate organizational culture. It is inevitable and urgent for organizations to acknowledge the importance and necessity of leadership transition and succession plans to deal with the massive aging population and subsequent retirement surge.

Our research analyzes the obstacles pertaining to executive leadership succession planning as a matter of operating policy in Mexico and Colombia nonprofit organizations and provides feasible recommendations, especially for nonprofit organizations serving the health and human service sector in light of the burgeoning size and scope in these fields. Ten nonprofit executives and administrators were interviewed individually or in groups employing “snowball” sampling in order to effectively identify experts who possess extensive knowledge and insight for executive-level succession planning within the organization. The selected ethnographic informants were nonprofit professionals who worked at nonprofit coordinating/networking organizations, particularly a diverse group of nonprofit executives/administrators in the fields of health and human services, as well as community development.

The interviews identified the critical obstacles that have impeded building an effective succession plan within both Mexico City and Cartagena: structural constraints that impact the fiscal sustainability of nonprofits, underdevelopment of the nonprofit and philanthropic sector and a dearth of professional development opportunities and structures for nonprofit employees. The interviews generally revealed that more similarities existed than differences with regard to why cultures of intentional succession planning have not been developed by a vast majority of nonprofit organizations. That being said, fiscal sustainability issues are more pervasive in Mexico City than in Cartagena, and dilemmas resulting from an underdeveloped sector are more pronounced in Cartagena.

As depicted in Table 1, it is significant to note that while Mexican nonprofits fared worse than all other countries surveyed in this study regarding funds received from both philanthropic and governmental sources, Colombian nongovernmental organizations were second only to Spain in income received from philanthropic entities. Thus, it appears that Colombian nonprofits are better positioned for organizational sustainability than their Mexican counterparts since a primary condition for long term fiscal sustainability is the ability to secure and manage diverse streams of revenue. Nonetheless, Colombian nonprofits exhibited one of the lowest percentages of income from public sources (15 percent) in this survey. In light of the relative lack of funding support received from governmental sources for both Mexican and Colombian nonprofits, it is no surprise that all of the interviewees in this study reported that fiscal sustainability issues, including problems with funding for general day-to-day operations, greatly impacted their ability to recruit employees and provide leadership training, as well as facilitate board development activities that are essential components of fostering a culture of intentional succession planning.

These nonprofit organizations face dual, but intertwined, challenges: On the one hand, less dependence on government fund and restoration of trust from the public; on the other hand, the cultivation of next-generation leadership with limited resources. Several recommendations for enhancing financial sustainability and building seamless succession planning in the Mexican and Colombian nonprofit sectors are presented:

  • First, nonprofits should consider forming a strategic alliance in order to develop a platform to address the nonprofit registration process and subsequent tax exemption and to maintain up-to-date information to keep citizens engaged.
  • Second, the alliance should build a proactive recruitment plan, manage a talent pool and provide a training program, especially for the younger generation in the unprecedented new age of progress.
  • Third, each nonprofit should craft an organizational culture, engaging, attracting and retaining the next generation of leaders. In addition to the proactive recruitment and growth opportunities focused on empowerment and innovative/transformative leadership, nonprofits should incorporate a decentralized decisionmaking system and establish and reinforce a healthy and engaging culture.
  • Finally, the Mexican and Colombian nonprofits should develop a variety of indirect and intangible incentives to attract qualified and motivated applications and retain them, considering the lack of monetary compensation and tangible benefits.

Author: Karl Besel is dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Health and Science at the University of Saint Joseph, where he also is a professor of public health and social work. His research interests include nonprofit management and sustainability, executive succession planning, urban planning and civil society. He can be reached at [email protected].

Author: Arturo Flores López is director of the Anahuac Centre for Research in International Relations, based at the Faculty of Global Studies at Universidad Anahuac Mexico. He has a Ph.D. in politics and MA in public administration and public policy from the University of York in the United Kingdom. He can be reached at [email protected].

Author: Chae Young Chang is assistant professor at Indiana University Northwest, School of Public and Environmental Affairs. His research focuses not only on public management, particularly employee turnover and organizational performance, culture and succession planning, but also policy analysis and social inequality. He can be reached at [email protected].

Author: Tonya E. Thornton is executive vice president of strategic initiatives for the National Quantum Literacy Network and PI for Emergency and Crisis Management at the Global Connective Center. Her research focuses primarily on the intersection of emergency management, public safety and critical infrastructure toward making communities smarter and more resilient. She can be reached at [email protected].

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