Leadership succession: A 21st-century challenge for the arts

More than 10 years ago, a respected colleague of mine, John Kreidler, then the senior arts grantmaker for the San Francisco Foundation, began talking and writing about a critical dynamic of the nonprofit art world: the willingness of arts leaders to discount their labor in order to work in the field of the arts about which they were uncommonly passionate.

On the one hand, the passion and sacrifice of these leaders made it possible for thousands of smaller organizations to make and present the arts to the public ever since the boom in nonprofit arts began in the 1960’s. On the other hand, however, this dynamic did several serious disservices to the arts, the impact of which has been keenly felt for the past several decades.

First, leadership succession became a real problem. Leaders who had forgone seeking benefits or raising their salary over the years found they could not afford to retire. When a leader did leave, the organization’s board found itself unable to attract a capable replacement for the level of compensation its former, often founding, leader was willing to accept. 

Second, the low salaries and lack of benefits for workers in the arts created the impression by default that the arts are not a truly professional sector and that those working in it do not need the same kind of competitive compensation that workers in the “real” world require.

A corollary to this was the impression that, because employment was not structured along the lines of the competitive business model, the entire sector and all of its operations were viewed as not being business-like.

The capacity-building movement that has been rampant in the nonprofit sector has made efforts to address these issues. We now see leaders and their boards building financial and professional capacity in order to be able to respond to looming succession challenges as Baby Boomer leaders look toward retirement.

Younger workers in all fields have very different expectations for employment. And it’s not just about compensation and benefits. Two national studies came across my desk recently that explore the challenges of developing next generation leadership for the nonprofit sector: “Supporting Next-Generation Leadership, An Action Guide from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations” and “Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out,” co-sponsored by the Annie E. Casey and Meyers Foundations, CompassPoint (a nonprofit services organization), and idealist.org/Action without Borders.

These studies identify a number of “structural barriers” and “significant deterrents” to attracting next-generation nonprofit leaders. Here are a few that caught my eye:

  • Long hours and personal sacrifices. The classic and historic “burnout” model of the sector is not attractive to younger workers.
  • Insufficient lifelong earning potential. The lack of capacity for salary increases, merit pay and sophisticated retirement plans. 
  • Obscure avenues for advancement. Many nonprofits have very flat organizational structures with little or no opportunity for advancement through the ranks into leadership positions.
  • Lack of mentorship and professional development opportunities. Nonprofits rarely provide professional development for their workers – a valuable benefit in the business world. And there is the perception, if not the reality, that older leaders are reluctant to bring younger workers along and may even feel threatened by them.
  • The establishment’s aversion to change. Too many established leaders resist new ideas, perhaps seeing these as criticism of their own performance, or because they fear losing power before they are ready.
  • Lack of technological capacity. Younger professionals want a work environment that supports their contemporary work style and moves as rapidly and comfortably as they do through successive technological advancements.

As the leadership guard changes in the arts world, it will be important for current leaders (who were as entrepreneurial and creative in their day as any of today’s innovative professionals) to recognize, welcome and pave the way for the leaders of the future.

It also will be critical for current leaders and their boards to create an operational culture and environment within their organizations that is not only attractive to younger professionals, but also flexible and mobile in response to the change that is now as much a constant in the nonprofit realm as it has been in the for-profit sector for decades.


  1. Brendan Reynolds

    Ms. Cerveny,

    I have just discovered your blog and I wanted to say thank you!

    Reading this most recent blog is particularly interesting. As a 2008 graduate of the Arts Management Program at Baldwin-Wallace College I have been interviewing with arts organizations both locally and around the country for the past few months.

    In every interview that I have had I have been told that I will not make any money working in the arts and that I will be subjected to both long and unusual hours.

    While the arts management program at B-W has prepared me for this reality, and it does not come as a surprise to me, it is amazing to sit in an interview and almost in a way be discouraged from pursuing the position.

    Luckily, I know the importance of finding an arts organization whose mission and core values closely align with my own. It seems as if this need for “passion” and the willingness to “sacrifice” is going to continue to be a realty for emerging arts professionals for the foreseeable future.

    I will be very interested to look into the studies which you mentioned in this blog.

    Thank you! Please keep these coming. I will be sure to check back soon.

  2. Mr. Reynolds; thank you for your comments. Keep looking. There are good organizations out there where the positve and entrepreneurial organizational culture offsets some of the challenges faced by new entrants to the field. It will be the task of the next generation of leaders to help good organizations transition to full professionalism and competitiveness. A worthy and honorable challenge.

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