More than a pipeline: a new vision for nonprofit leadership development

Photo credit: pratanti, Creative Commons/Flickr

When it comes to leadership development, organizations often envision employees as talent in a pipeline that needs to be developed in order to move up. But is this the best approach? Rusty Stahl, Idealist board member, doesn’t think so:

First, pipelines generally transport oil, not people. I will admit it: a pipeline takes an asset from its starting place (at least the place where people drill the oil up from the ground) to the ultimate destination we define for it, where it is transformed into new forms of energy and burned into oblivion. Career pathways similarly deploy talent assets from their youth to be transformed into productive workers that turn their values, intelligence, creativity, sweat and relationships into the life energy of social causes. And, ultimately, at the least, the physical manifestation of that energy is used up.

But nonprofit workers are not oozing liquid that simply goes with the flow. There is much more agency, choice and give-and-take amongst people as we move along our career paths; sometimes we pursue employers, other times they recruit us. We proactively build up experience, and sometimes opportunities appear unexpectedly as a result of preparation — and luck. Most careers do not move from point A to point Z in a straight line with scientific precision like the pipeline.

Instead, he argues that nonprofit careers develop like links in a chain: “Mentors and teachers pass ideas, knowledge, and practices from hand to hand. This ensures that knowledge from the past remains alive in the present and morphs into the future as each generation innovates, adapts and adds new meaning and method to an evolving cannon.”

Read more on Rusty’s blog and chime in: how should we approach career and leadership development in the nonprofit sector?

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Comments (2)


  1. […] for referencing my most recent piece on this blog on their blog! Here’s their post: More than a pipeline. Given their large budget, they were able to percure much better graphics than me  Excited to […]


  2. Garland Doyle, Social Change Guy writes:
    November 26, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    In order to change nonprofit leadership development or the lack of, the nonprofit sector including foundations has to first view nonprofit leadership as its own profession. The blogger references universities and hospitals as examples of passing knowledge from one generation to the next. Both of them are filled with professions (i.e. Professors, Doctors, Nurses, etc.). All of these professionals receive educational training followed by an apprenticeship and have to adhere to a code of ethics. Outside of fundraisers, I cannot think of where else this occurs in nonprofit leadership.
    Recently, the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance developed a certification program (CNP-Certified Nonprofit Professional) for nonprofit leadership professionals. I have not seen an outcry from foundations, watchdog organizations, government funders or regulators for nonprofit leaders to obtain their CNP status. We would not think of allowing a doctor or nurse to practice without certification and licenses. I had to ask myself then why do we allow nonprofit leadership too. The answer is society still views nonprofit leadership as just volunteer or humanitarian work and not a profession.


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