The call to prioritize the nonprofit sector workforce and the wellbeing of nonprofit leaders is not new. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed to the forefront movements like Fund the People’s initiative to maximize investment in the nonprofit workforce, sabbatical programs for Executive Directors, dedicated wellness funds, efforts to improve organizational culture, and employee development opportunities, among others. These efforts continue in the pandemic’s aftermath.As data from the National Council of Nonprofits show, burnout, trauma, retention, and hiring issues persist across the sector, most evidently in program and service delivery positions, where three in four vacancies are found. This high rate of attrition has resulted in longer waiting lists for programs and services compared to pre-pandemic levels. The enduring impacts of racism and economic inequality, along with a rise in hate crimes, create a difficult tide with which nonprofit leaders must contend, both in their work and their personal lives.
While providing flexible general operating support is critical, funders and donors, especially those who care about safety net programs and organizations that uphold the social services addressing essential needs in the community, can address an equally urgent need by giving workers at the front lines of service delivery the resources to sustain their careers. An intentional focus on wages, access to benefits, and career-development programs that center nonprofit leaders’ well-being helps limit the exodus of highly skilled and passionate changemakers from the sector.
The Boston Foundation’s (TBF) Nonprofit Sector Infrastructure (NPSI) strategy recognizes that leadership development programs that prioritize participants’ well-being are a necessary element of ensuring longevity in mission-driven work and supporting the next generation of nonprofit leaders. In the fall of 2022, TBF partnered with New Sector Alliance to bring its emergent national Leadership Longevity program to the Greater Boston area. Over the course of five months during the spring and summer 2023, mid-career frontline nonprofit leaders engaged deeply with New Sector Alliance’s Leadership Longevity Fellowship (LLF). The Fellowship aligns with NPSI’s goals to dismantle systemic disinvestment in the nonprofit sector workforce, so its leaders can address proximate concerns in communities and effect positive change that reverberates throughout Greater Boston. Collective investment in programs like LLF gives future sector leaders the tools to navigate systemic barriers within their organizations, careers, and the sector overall.
The Leadership Longevity Fellowship (LLF) is a hybrid (in-person and virtual) pilot fellowship program developed by New Sector Alliance, initially to support the well-being and leadership journeys of Executive Directors. In the Greater Boston pilot, LLF focused on mid-career leaders working in mission-driven organizations by helping fellows chart a career trajectory that supports their well-being, personal transformation, and professional development that amplifies their ability to impact their community and issue area(s).
Fifteen mid-career frontline staff working in current or recent grantee (within the past five years) nonprofit organizations in Greater Boston participated in the pilot fellowship between May and September 2023. These mid-career fellows were expected to have at least five years of paid work experience in the nonprofit sector, to currently serve in a mid-level leadership role or middle-management position, and to work in proximity to individuals and communities their organization served. Eighty percent of participants had worked in the sector between five and 10 years, and for 60 percent of fellows this was their first leadership development program. Fellows worked in issue areas ranging from education to public health; affordable housing and homelessness; economic development; technology; youth services; college access; workforce development; and empowerment through art, music, and other creative forms of expression.
The cohort comprised individuals who reflected the communities they serve, with 87 percent self-identifying as Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color and 73 percent as the first in their family to attend college. The Boston Foundation supported fellows’ wellness journeys with a $1,000 stipend to participate in two in-person convenings and bi-weekly virtual training sessions led by New Sector facilitators over the course of the program. The focus on mid-career staff addressed a lack of wellness and leadership development opportunities available to this part of the nonprofit workforce in the Greater Boston area and highlighted their importance as future leaders in the sector.
At the program’s in-person launch in May 2023 at the Boston Foundation’s Edgerley Center for Civic Leadership, the Fellows and New Sector Alliance facilitators began building networks of communication and support that would be critical to the program’s success over the coming months. New Sector’s experienced facilitation team and subject matter experts led training sessions on topics including Leadership Styles, Growth Mindset, Personal Values, Limiting Beliefs, Recognizing Signs of Burnout, Behaviors and Actions That Nurture Well-Being, Building Resilience, and Career Visioning. LLF-facilitated sessions also included focus group discussions, peer learning opportunities, asynchronous work, and post-program evaluation. Though the Boston Foundation funded the pilot fellowship and engaged in deep learning along the way, Foundation staff intentionally did not attend or participate in any sessions, creating space for fellows to make the most of their experience without a funder presence in the room.
Fellowship organizers and facilitators had seven goals to help mid-career fellows address sustainable wellness and professional growth. These included:
- Increase knowledge of the skills needed to ensure greater longevity in the sector.
- Gain leadership and wellness tools to continue to grow fellows’ career journeys, whether in or outside the nonprofit sector.
- Deepen understanding of the relationship between their leadership style and well-being.
- Build confidence in future leadership, wellness goals, and next steps.
- Expand fellows’ community of support.
- Equip to share newfound knowledge.
- Build confidence in their ability to remain long-term in a mission-focused role.
After meeting virtually throughout the summer, fellows capped off their career and well-being development journeys in September at The Guild, a community space in Dorchester’s Four Corners neighborhood that is owned and led by people of color and cultivates healing, preserves culture, and activates asset creation. The day-long celebration included a series of peer-learning activities, wellness exercises like Qi Gong and aromatherapy, reflection conversations, and a final closing reception, where fellows could continue to build relationships. Centering nonprofit workers’ wellness allowed participants to reflect on their life journeys and envision how their current positions align with their personal and professional goals. As one fellow shared, “The closing convening was a wonderful way to wrap up the fellowship experience, a chance to reconnect in person, reflect on our journey so far, map out potential pathways in the future, and focus on wellness, which was the theme of the program. It was well paced, thoughtfully planned, and I felt very welcomed and comfortable as part of the LLF community.”
The lively conversations and honest feedback throughout the five months provided an opportunity for New Sector Alliance and the Boston Foundation to learn about the program’s potential impact on mid-career frontline nonprofit leaders and areas of improvement. Fellows reflected on their overall experience and commented on elements of the program that they liked, wished, or wondered about, as well as their satisfaction with each programmatic element. With a Net Promoter Score of 93, results show that LLF fellows placed the program above the 80-point threshold, making it a “world class” program.
Reflecting on their participation in the program overall, one fellow said that“you will leave enlightened and empowered with the language and tools needed to strengthen the leader you can and will become.” Another fellow commented, “I have never in my life felt more valued as a human; not a director or a performer, but just for being a human.”
At the close of the program, 100 percent of fellows agreed that this experience provided leadership and wellness tools for them to increase their longevity in the sector. In a representative comment, one participant said, “I strengthened my burnout shield, by being more intentional about how I connect with the people who make the shield strong…” and another reflected, “I am no longer trying to rush growth. I’m really trying to be content with my progress instead of focusing on what I haven't achieved or comparing myself to others who have advanced further.”
Several factors contributed to this success. First, Fellows gained confidence in their potential as future leaders. One fellow mentioned that they “feel more confident in [their] skills and abilities to be a great leader not only for [their] team but for [themselves].” Second, the sessions helped fellows set clear wellness goals, both personally and professionally, and honed their ability to use the wellness tools shared as part of the program. Third, Fellows developed an expanded community of support. One participant, for whom this was their first professional development experience, called it “a powerful experience to be part of this community of fellows, reflect deeply on personal and professional experiences, not feel alone in this journey, and build my toolbox of resources and relationships.”
While participants’ comments suggest that LLF empowered them to continue their growth in the sector for the coming years, it also pointed to opportunities to expand the fellowship in three areas. First, Fellows said they would like to practice and share their newfound knowledge with those in their organizations, among their teams, colleagues, and community as part of the program. Addressing this point, one fellow wished they “had more opportunity to practice using some of the best practices learned during the fellowship… and then perhaps either report out or reflect on how it went.” Second, participants wanted additional opportunities to connect with guest speakers, other LLF participants, and alumni. Lastly, Fellows’ reflections suggested a desire for additional coaching to support individual challenges and leadership journeys. One Fellow articulated this as a desire to incorporate “group, peer, or individual coaching for some of the leadership, management, and wellness challenges and questions that emerged from conversations.” Reflections from the closing convening at The Guild showed the value of supporting in-person convenings in community spaces with the power for collective healing.
The Boston Foundation looks forward to integrating these key learnings in future collaborations with New Sector Alliance to offer the Leadership Longevity Fellowship to other mid-career leaders in Greater Boston. More specifically, extending the program from five to nine months would give fellows more time to practice the skills they are learning through exercises, case studies, or real-world projects. More in-person meetings would offer participants the opportunity to develop deeper relationships with peers who will be their community of support. Integrating coaching and mentoring opportunities to the program would support fellows’ individual journeys, helping them address personal and professional challenges and questions, as well as help them integrate the curriculum into the workplaces and communities. Lastly, engaging fellowship alumni through convenings, communication, and networking creates a pathway for continued growth and learning.
New Sector Alliance’s Leadership Longevity Fellowship is a highly impactful program that supports the wellness and longevity of mission-driven leaders. Through programming, community-building, and additional program benefits, the fellowship equipped fellows with leadership and wellness tools to support their well-being and ability to continue to grow in their careers. Programs like New Sector’s LLF are integral for the health and longevity of the nonprofit workforce by reinforcing the sector’s leadership pipeline. Expanding support for the program would allow future fellows to benefit from changes that provide more content and time to connect with peers.
To learn more about the Leadership Longevity Fellowship or support the work of the Nonprofit Sector Infrastructure, please contact Leigh Handschuh, Senior Program Officer, and Carlos Muñoz-Cadilla, Senior Associate.