Why We Need to Invest in Human Potential

19th century French diplomat and sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” He rightly recognized that what made our society exceptional was the ability of its people to solve problems and lead within their communities.  

This idea is particularly resonant in the social sector, where many of our country’s most pressing problems are being tackled at the community level. Nonprofit leaders dedicate their lives to addressing the most intractable problems affecting their families, friends, and communities – often in extremely challenging circumstances. Given this environment and the goals they are trying to achieve, they must be able to work at their best and maximize their talents.

Unfortunately, limited resources and budget constraints prevent too many from accessing the tools and resources to unlock their potential.   

A recent survey by McKinsey & Company (Callanan et al, 2014) concluded that the U.S. social sector sees chronic underinvestment in leadership development, resulting in “a gap between demands on leaders and their ability to meet those needs.”

With the growing shortage of nonprofit managers and leaders, “many professionals in human service organizations (HSOs) find themselves thrust into managerial and leadership positions without the knowledge and skills necessary to be effective” (Hopkins et al 2014). In fact, only about one in five nonprofit leaders feel a high level of confidence in their leadership abilities, according to the 2018 Wake Up Call Report by the Concord Leadership Group.

If we want to retain talent, enthusiasm, and effectiveness in the social sector, organizations and team members will need more support. Out of 20 key nonprofit developmental needs surveyed by the Concord Leadership Group that were going unmet, the top was leadership training, immediately followed by leadership coaching/mentoring. Fewer than 1 in 10 felt that their needs were being met to a “very great” extent.

Corporations understand the value of investing in human potential – that it helps recruitment and retention and impacts the bottom line – and they have a critical role to play in affecting how nonprofit leaders value that critical investment, too.

First, corporations can continue to lead the charge in experimenting with and implementing talent initiatives. They can invite nonprofits in their communities to learn about those initiatives – and share the success stories with community leaders. For example, corporations often develop their own in-house programming to enhance specific skills across their workforce that can be delivered online or in-person. Corporations could invite non-profit leaders in their community to access these resources free of charge, or even invite them in to participate in their trainings, as appropriate.

Second, they can identify platforms like the Unlocking Potential Pro Bono Network through which their employees can leverage their own experiences with leadership development by providing coaching to nonprofit leaders.

Finally, they can ensure that their corporate social responsibility teams are prioritizing talent development – and especially leadership development – alongside their investments in programs. For example, corporations can provide earmarked dollars to grantees for leadership development services of their choice. Alternately, they can invest in community-wide programs that encourage collaborative leadership development amongst their grantees. I’m proud to lead a non\profit that does exactly this type of work.

Although progress is being made, we still have a long way to go before we achieve that de Tocquevillian state of a healthy democratic society. But if we can continue to redefine leadership, increase collaboration, and forge partnerships among the social sector and beyond, we will be on the path to unlocking a new wealth of leadership potential.  

Carly Fiorina is the Founder & Chairman of the Unlocking Potential Foundation, dedicated to strengthening leadership and problem-solving skills across the social sector.