Our Research

This report summarizes the research conducted by the Feasibility Study Team from October through December 2012.

Sources included:

  • A review of current research studies of issues in youth leadership.
  • Research in models for service delivery, legal structures and their implications.
  • Investigation of existing nonprofit organizations, their focus, needs, and challenges.
  • Focus groups: 20th Anniversary Celebration open space, the BK Authors Co-op Retreat, and the Social Venture Network.
  • Individual interviews with 18 BK authors, 21 nonprofit program directors and young leaders, 4 BK board members, and 9 BK staff.


In July 2012, during an open space meeting at the BK 20th Anniversary Celebration, Juana Bordas asked this compelling question, “We’re getting old. How are we preparing and supporting the next group of thought-leaders and change agents to take our place?”

Our research revealed that the answer is, “not well.”  There is a looming leadership gap for non-profits, for communities and for organizations with a commitment to social responsibility.

According to Karen Dyer, director of The Center for Creative Leadership’s Education and Nonprofit sector. “We have a capacity gap that will require significant investments and new approaches to attract, keep and grow effective, creative nonprofit leaders.”

The 2012 Annual Report from the Center for Creative Leadership concludes: “Unfortunately the demands of the nonprofit sector have not been matched by investment in leadership talent. Equipping people to lead through change and challenge has been largely overlooked.” The report cites three reasons:

    • Nonprofits rarely have the structures or funding for providing development opportunities for employees.
    • Long-established leaders often hold tightly to their roles.
    • Most funders don’t place a high priority on building a leadership pipeline.

Non-profits and grassroots organizations have no money for staff development.

In a 2011 study, CompassPoint reported that 46 percent of nonprofit executives indicated their organization had cash reserves that would last fewer than three months.

Andrea Kandle, Director of the National Conference of Community and Justice, explained, “I have no money for staff development. All of my funding goes directly to operations and services.” Ben Powell, of Agora Partnerships said “it’s ‘trial by fire’ – they learn by jumping in and doing the work.”

There is a lack of opportunity for staff to gain leadership experience within their organization.

In a 2006 study, CompassPoint reported that “non-profits are facing large-scale executive turnover” – that 9% of executives were in the process of leaving their jobs and that 75% anticipated leaving their jobs within 5 years.  However, the predicted turnover did not occur. In the 2011 study, CompassPoint explained why:

The current data suggests that several factors have created a drag effect on the rate of executive transitions. First, the recession required many older executives to reconsider their transition timing. One in six leaders is 60 years or older, and of this group, 22% reported that a loss in their retirement savings contributed to a transition delay. A second factor that influences turnover timing is the perceived lack of an appropriate successor.

According to the 2012 CCL report, emerging leaders are not getting an opportunity to develop leadership skills on the job:

By and large, Baby Boomers run the organizations, and Millennials are the new hires who are making a lot of noise. Gen Xers have to make sure the work gets done, while managing the conflicts between the people at the top (primarily Baby Boomers) who know how they want things done. The new hires (primarily Millennials) think they know how things should be done and are frustrated that they can’t get the organizations to shift to do work in the way they think would be most effective. Said one Gen Xer, “In my mid-30’s, I am stuck in the middle.”

The issue is not “general” leadership skills and it is not confined to non-profits.

Emerging leaders have little opportunity to learn the ideas and methodologies described in Berrett-Koehler books.

According to Bob Fishman, Executive Director of Resources for Human Development, staff come in from a practice base and then are expected to run a program without understanding what they need to know. They might be given training in budget management, but not in conflict management. Their schools do not include much on systems thinking, change management, and group process. Any previous work experience is usually in a top-down management environment. So this is all they know and they don’t even know what they need.

Relying solely on current executives to develop the next generation is not the answer either. According to Fishman, “There is a need for Future Search, but the question is who in the nonprofit sector is ready to explore a different way to do things. There is a resistance to reassess the approaches they have been using, whether or not they work.”

According to Patrick Corvington, of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Next-generation leaders are finding ways to get involved in social change and do good work But they’re finding ways to do that outside of the [non-profit] sector.”

Young leaders who are starting grassroots and entrepreneurial organizations would greatly benefit from but have no access to focused opportunities to develop skills in the collaborative, whole systems models described in BK books.

Research Conclusion

The conclusion is that Berrett-Koehler could fulfill a real need by establishing a non-profit that focused on enabling young leaders to create a world that works for all by helping them learn and put into practice new ideas, skills, and tools that bring about real system change in their communities, focusing specifically on leadership and systems change concepts and methods that go beyond what is taught in traditional education and that address the underlying beliefs, mindsets, approaches, institutions, and structures that keep generating the same cycles of problems and inadequate responses.  These are the ideas, skills and tools of the thought-leaders published by Berrett-Koehler.

One of ideas most strongly expressed in all Berrett-Koehler books is that of continuing social responsibility, the belief that every individual, nonprofit and for-profit organization has an affirmative obligation, not simply to incorporate within its mission the BK goal of “A World That Works For All,” but continually to expand and make real that mission.

In creating an organization whose goal is to support and enhance the socially responsible work of young leaders, Berrett-Koehler is practicing what the publisher has preached for its first 20 years.