Monday, October 8, 2007

Is the Nonprofit Sector Becoming Obsessed with Credentials?

I recently received an email announcing a forum about the difficulty young people are having in pursuing public service jobs because of the debt they incur in college, as well as the high cost of living in many cities that necessitates high salaries. As a result, young people have no choice but to favor earning some bucks over “doing good.”

Good topic, but the invitation was enveloped in some rhetoric suggesting that the most troubling thing about this trend wasn’t just the lack of incentives for young people to pursue public service jobs but that it’s keeping the “the best and the brightest” from doing so.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but from where I sit, it seems as if the “best and brightest” are pretty much becoming the only ones able to pursue public service careers. And what’s wrong with wanting those folks in our ranks?

Nothing---if we're using “best and brightest” to connote people with exceptional skills, intelligence, passion, and tenacity. But it seems that increasingly, the phrase is being used as a code for credentials, educational pedigree, social capital, and financial connections.

And I've experienced some of this myself as a former program officer with an older foundation. Not surprisingly, most of the young people who had entrée to its coffers were the those who've had access to an Ivy League (or equivalent) education; parents who paid their rent so they could get (or did get) the "good" internships; and/or friends or family members who were political figures, academics at other Ivy League schools, famous media people, and others comprising what David Brooks would call the ruling class.

More disconcerting was that they tended be viewed by adults as "the best and the brightest," which had less to do with the merit or experience of these young people and more with the connections and capital of their parents or others with the influence to propel these folks over other the heads of other worthy (and less entitled) candidates who were equally (and sometimes more) qualified.

Yes, older and more established institutions are more likely to adhere to a white-gloved tradition. But is the latter trickling out to less-established nonprofits and to the sector, overall? Are we becoming just as obsessed as the larger culture on the famous, the connected, and the rich? Nonprofit conferences and events showcase individuals whose bios, full of elite credentials, are proudly proclaimed. Young people held up as the best examples of nonprofit leadership are often those who’ve had access to financial, social and educational connections. At a recent conference, one brave soul stood up and asked whether there were any national service initiatives that had been launched by "anyone not from Harvard, Yale or Princeton." Of course there are, but they're sometimes overlooked because they lack the cachet that an Ivy League rubric immediately bestows.

So what's wrong with this? Nothing, if one believes that educational pedigree, credentials and social capital are inherently superior to experience, hard work, skills, tenacity, and one’s own “gumption,” as a young friend of mine called his own rise to success in the nonprofit sector (and who had little credentials of which to speak, he noted happily). But how much is "gumption" valued? When it comes down to a choice between my friend and a recent Harvard graduate whose parents are Stanford professors, New York Times reporters, or former White House staff members, whom do you think is going to get first dibs on the job... the grant... or the opportunity?

That's a thorny issue that hasn't been discussed much in nonprofit forums because it runs right up against the values that many in that sector say they hold dear. And it makes people understandably uncomfortable, especially those in nonprofit leadership positions whose rise to prominence may have had less to do with merit than with their pedigree or personal connections.

So what do we do about it? We can start by recognizing that a cultural obsession with last names, pedigree, and/or social capital doesn’t have to be one that we embrace, but rather, challenge. We can hire people on the basis of their experiences and skills, rather than on who their parents are or where they went to school. In the midst of all the accolades being bestowed on our leaders, we can ask, “what have they actually done to deserve these?” And, perhaps most importantly, we can ask what obstacles, if any, has this person endured or overcome and how has that made them a stronger, smarter, and/or ethical person?

As Booker T. Washington once wrote, "Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome." Perhaps that's the criteria we should think about using for "the best and brightest" in the nonprofit sector.


David said...

I thought this was an inciteful post. It does seem like many nonprofits are priding themselves in having staff with lots of educational credentials. Perhaps part of this is an indicator of the nonprofit sector is maturing as an industry like business that rewards MBAs and especially those from top schools? I was amazed recently to learn that one legal aid organization in Minnesota received 90 applicants for one legal aid position and many resumes were from top 10 law schools. The position paid $40k. It made me wonder if because so many people are going back to school for advanced degrees that perhaps nonprofits have in increased supply of credentialed people to choose from? Increasing reliance on people with lots of degrees may be a troubling indicator that nonprofits are looking for some kind of idealized professional rather than looking for what so many nonprofits need - that is relationship builders, organizers and community connectors. The blog post was good food for thought. Thanks.

cingib said...

David, thanks for the post. I've never been one to eshew a "business mindset" because I think it helps our sector move forward (the private sector does have something to provide). I don't think completely adopting their model, though is the answer (it's that pesky middle ground question again). And I'm glad that more qualified smart people want to work in nonprofits, don't get me wrong. I'm more concerned with our definition of "qualified," i.e., that it's about skills and competency (underrated in our sector, regrettably), rather than what school they went to or who their parents are.

David Geilhufe said...

I've commented on this in terms of innovation in the nonprofit sector... there is very little real innovation (completely new ideas, completely new organizations, radical rethinking of how we do things) driven by regular people, or better yet, from the communities from which the nonprofit sector draw "clients".

This is because the folks that can feed and house themselves from their own resources are the only ones that can go through the year or so it takes to put an idea together and generate the outcomes that attract/impress funders.

I'd love to see more simple stipends for regular (and poor) people to pursue social innovation. It would certainly change the landscape from picking among people with degrees to picking among people with proven track records.

Tutor Mentor Connections said...

I think we need to find the ways "the best and brightest" make life long careers in the non profit sector. Such people should have skills to innovate solutions to complex problems, as well as connections to find the resources to support innovation, and sustain problem solving for many years. I work with inner city kids. We all want them to have skills to work in 21st century jobs, but who is innovating ways to make funds aviable for the 20 years it takes for a program to support a 1st grader as he goes through school and enters a career? Such programs are needed in thousands of locations.

I've been piloting the use of maps to show where poverty is most concentrated in Chicago, as a targeting tool intended to draw "the best and brightest" into every poverty neighborhood. If such maps show existing non profits doing needed work, then it would be great if Ivy League MBA programs (or the local community college) were creating advertising that drew volunteers, donors and leaders through such maps to all of the places where they were needed, and sustained this campaign for all the years such programs will be needed.

That might lead to a better distribution of "the best and brightest" in multiple locations and in high profile, and low profile, non profits doing similar work.

Delba said...

I have worked in the non-profit sector for nearly 30 years. I have witnessed a good mix of individuals with strong educational credentials and many individuals who are clearly capable but not as academically impressive. My preference has always been to consider academic credentials but never to overlook why working in the non-profit sector is an important choice for an individual. Even with a wide range of answers usually starting with "wanting to give back" or "make a difference"...For me, what separates the good from the exceptional goes beyond the opportunity for service. I believe it speaks to the heart and soul of recognizing that when a life is changed or a situation made individual at time is given hope, choice, opportunity and caring. I'm sure that to those individuals on the receiving end...what matters most is not whether the provider is highly credentialed but rather if there is a lasting opportunity for positive change in their lives.