Central Iowa business leaders enjoy an outstanding reputation for supporting our community’s charitable causes. Flip through the “rsvp” section of dsm magazine and you’ll see familiar faces fueling the fundraising scene, or browse any local nonprofit’s annual report, and corporate representatives likely stack the board of directors. These traditional means of engaging with the social sector are critical, but they don’t typically involve much contact with the support staff and direct service professionals who work every day to carry out a meaningful mission. 

Building up the “bench strength” of local nonprofit leadership is important, even to those who work outside the sector. For one, employees often cross back and forth between the corporate sector and charitable work, so fostering our talent pool is a collective win. Arguably, stronger staffs are also better stewards of funds donated and granted. 

Yet, according to an article by Foundation Center, social sector organizations spend on average of just $29 per employee each year on leadership development, compared with $120 annually per employees in business. Funding restrictions might mean many nonprofit executives must choose between sending their staff to a conference and keeping the proverbial lights on. Fortunately, there are many tactics for fostering nonprofit leadership that won’t bust a budget. 

As founding co-chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) Des Moines chapter, I’ve been amazed at the eagerness among my peers to gather and share resources, experiences and connections. In just a year, we’ve developed a calendar of professional development and networking events, built a monthly newsletter and social media presence that provide links to job openings, informative blog posts and a forum to ask and answer questions. We’ve engaged college students and nonprofit executives, and served as a landing place for people new to town who had been plugged into the YNPN chapter in their former city. 

In Central Iowa’s quest for human and social capital development, more opportunities for fostering nonprofit leadership abound. Allow me to offer a few simple strategies that can build a bridge between business and nonprofit leadership: 

Invite emerging nonprofit leaders to serve on your corporate grants selection committee or help you develop your company’s charitable giving strategy. Their experience on the front lines of the social issues your organization seeks to address could provide a valuable perspective. 

Take a staffer out to coffee. Nonprofit employees often wear lots of hats and might not have a background in one of their “other duties as assigned” (marketing, database management, etc.). Ask the executive director which of her staff might be interested in advice in your area of expertise. Conversely, if you serve on a board tasked with developing a strategic plan, reach out to staff members who deeply understand the organization’s daily, practical challenges and impact. Don’t assume a consultant will. 

Provide feedback with your contribution or after a volunteer experience. Send a simple note to let the charitable team know what inspired you to give or what process they might consider tweaking. 

Encourage the idealists. Nonprofit employees are often intrinsically motivated and possess humility, enthusiasm and perseverance that can make for a transformational leader. Invite them to think big, and our community can only get better.

Brianne Sanchez is the founding co-chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Des Moines chapter