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Networking for the next generation of nonprofit leaders

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 20, 2009 - The Baby Boomer executives whose idealism helped drive growth in the nonprofit sector are retiring or preparing for their exits. Who will take their place?

It’s a question that April Shelton, president of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network St. Louis chapter, hears quite often. “Nonprofits aren’t always great at grooming leaders,” she said. “They haven’t necessarily prepared for the next generation to step into positions.”

In response to studies that pointed to a possible crisis of leadership in the nonprofit world, the national organization Young Nonprofit Professionals Network formed in Northern California more than a decade ago. The St. Louis chapter came together less than a year ago to help cultivate young people who are ready to assume leadership positions at area nonprofits.

To that end, the group is holding an event Thursday called “Yearn 2 Learn Fair,” in which people in the nonprofit world or looking to gain entry can schmooze with colleagues, as well as representatives from area colleges, organizations and networking groups. The event runs from 5-8 p.m. at Old Rock House, 1200 South 7th St. It’s free for network members and costs $5 (which includes free well drinks and snacks) for non-members.

Think college fair meets business happy hour. University vendors, all of which have academic programs relating to nonprofit work or public policy, include Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Saint Louis University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Lindenwood University and Washington University, which is the main sponsor of the event. The United Way's GenNext group and River City Professionals are among the young networking groups invited to bring their members to the event.

The idea, said Marjorie Williams, the group’s program chairperson, is to give job hunters and nonprofit employees a broad network of people to meet. Williams said most of the group's 80-some members are in their 20s and 30s, and the majority are currently working at nonprofits in some capacity. They include representatives from small nonprofits and large organizations like the American Red Cross and United Way of Greater St. Louis.

Thursday's event is the first of what Shelton hopes will become an annual gathering. The group, which is applying for nonprofit status, already holds monthly networking events in addition to book club meetings every two months. (Some members are currently eading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.”) Membership in the group is $40, which covers costs through next December.

Williams, who is also executive director of Minds Eye Information Service, a broadcast service for the blind and reading impaired, said young people interested in nonprofit leadership need to learn about all aspects of organizations, from fundraising to volunteer management. Educating members is part of the group's mission.

“As the sector blurs, we need to be preparing everyone for those changes," Shelton said. She is on the front lines of a growth area in the sector. As director of business and community relations for Cofactor Genomics, a company that does genome sequencing, Shelton is helping to start a nonprofit that goes along with the current for-profit enterprise. Shelton said many companies are creating new divisions to help promote the idea of corporate responsibility.

Williams said some group members have expressed frustration with the current job market, which is filled with the usual suspects plus people who in a good economy would have looked toward corporate gigs but now are looking at nonprofit employment. Still, she's confident that young people will keep after the job search and eventually move up the ladder. "We're looking at a generation of people who are philanthropic by nature," she said. 

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