February 22, 2020
Nonprofits Advised to Cultivate New Leaders and Keep Investing

Jonathan Spack: There’s a tremendous reservoir of talent in our sector.
January 4, 2013 — Cultivating the next generation of leaders while investing in technology and innovative ways of operating are among the best steps Massachusetts nonprofits can take in the near term to help assure themselves of continued success, according to a long-time sector leader.

“There’s a tremendous reservoir of talent in our sector and in the best organizations they’re allowed to flourish and grow. It’s incumbent upon on us, as board members and staff, to seek out and nurture those people,” said Jonathan Spack, executive director of Third Sector New England (TSNE), a Boston-based nonprofit that provides management and leadership resources to nonprofits statewide.

Providing an overview of key trends and challenges facing the Massachusetts nonprofit sector, Spack, who has helmed TSNE for 25 years, said the accelerating use of technology throughout the culture poses a challenge for nonprofits, but also an opportunity.

“Organizations that are nimble using technology—internally, reaching out, and in other ways—will have an advantage over those who don’t,” he said.

“People in their 20s and 30s are comfortable using those technologies, and not just social media, and organizations that embrace new technologies will do well. Those that don’t will fall by the wayside.”

An Emerging Fourth Sector

Spack believes that the two factors—leadership development and technology adoption—are intimately linked to a third major trend that is gaining strength, an emerging fourth sector composed of hybrid organizations.

Hybrid organizations blur the lines between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, he said, and include benefit or low-profit corporations—for-profits that have a social mission and don’t seek to maximize profits—private-public partnerships, and social impact investing.

“It’s a little chaotic right now, but a lot of people are getting involved, and investing in young people, technology, and research,” Spack said. “What’s clear is people can’t assume that since they’ve been successful for the last 15 years, they will be successful for the next 15 years.”

Key to helping those organizations emerge and thrive will be effective leadership, he said: “Having your ear to the ground, knowing the trends, where you’re going, what you need to pay attention to, is all part of effective leadership. It’s about being able to say we need to position ourselves in a particular way, not only to meet our mission but to be sustainable for the long term.”

Smaller Nonprofits Need to Know Their Value

Declaring his disagreement with those who claim there are too many nonprofits, Spack said it’s “equally important for the smaller ones to be clear about the unique value they offer.”

The key question they need to ask themselves, not once but more or less continuously, he said, is if they are having the most impact they can have as a small, independent nonprofit, or whether they can do more by aligning or combining with others.

Spack said resources like the Catalyst Fund for Nonprofits in Boston, which provides financial and other support to help nonprofits form better collaborations, has been quite helpful, and he expressed “hope that more funders will see fit to fund those things.”

Whether or not small- and medium-sized nonprofits get additional resources, they will continue to have the same capacity building needs they always have, according to Spack, which includes putting in place healthy systems—for financial, human sources, benefits, and fundraising management, among other functions—that help them remain sustainable.

Supporting the cause, he noted, has been the growth in academic training of nonprofit managers.

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