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Friday, Sept. 1, 2006 | Barbara Mannino, who runs the Vista Community Clinic, is currently training someone to do her job. The clinic experiences 185,000 patient visits a year and as the executive director and supervisor, Mannino’s job impacts every staff member and every patient.

She started grooming longtime staff member Fernando Sanudo for her job a few years ago, when the clinic’s board of directors decided to prepare the organization for a future transition. Sanudo has not been given the position yet.

“We are just training him so that he is the most prepared for the role when the time comes,” Mannino says.

But Mannino and the Vista clinic are unique among nonprofit organizations in the San Diego region. Only a small number of San Diego nonprofits are prepared for what is expected to be a qualified leadership vacuum, potentially putting many nonprofit organizations in jeopardy.

According to a recent study performed by the Center for Applied Nonprofit Research at the University of San Diego, 68 percent of executive directors for nonprofit organizations in the San Diego region plan on leaving their post sometime before the year 2011, leaving many of the county’s nonprofit organizations without leaders.

A number of prominent nonprofits have appointed new executive directors in 2006 alone, including the American Association of Museums, the San Diego Science Alliance, the San Diego Food Bank, the Neighborhood House Association, the American Red Cross, and the Episcopal Community Services.

Some wonder what would happen to both San Diego’s nonprofit sector and the large portion of the San Diego community that depends on nonprofit services if boards of directors don’t find experienced executive directors to replace those leaving.

Laura Deitrick, who led the USD study “Executive Transition in the San Diego Nonprofit Sector,” thinks that nonprofits should begin to plan rather than panic about the current situation.

“This is not a crisis, but rather an opportunity for nonprofit organizations to prepare for future leadership transitions,” Deitrick says.

The USD study also shows that the vast majority of current executive directors believe that it would be moderately, if not extremely, challenging to obtain a suitable replacement with the necessary qualifications and experience to take over their job. They cite the unimpressive pool of potential replacement candidates.

Experts say that more than two-thirds of current executive directors rank the selection of available candidates as considerably inadequate.

Paul Thompson, the senior vice president of the San Diego Foundation’s Organizational Success Program, said he recognizes that over the next few years a significant change is developing in the San Diego nonprofit sector; and like Deitrick, Thompson does not believe that this is an emergency.

“However if we act like nothing is going to happen there will be negative consequences,” Thompson says.

Almost all of the numerous studies performed on the topic over the past several years by companies and academic institutions across the nation – including the University of San Diego, CompassPoint, the Building Movement Project, Managance Consulting, and Bridgespan among many others – strongly recommend that nonprofit organizations start preparing for the future to avoid any possible problems.

Still, only 12 percent of San Diego nonprofits state that they have thoroughly discussed future transitions within their organizations.

“Nonprofits need to acknowledge the ageing generations of executives and start training the next generation for future leadership transitions,” Deitrick says. “Unfortunately, we can’t really pluck individuals out across the nation and hire them because the cost of living in San Diego is so high. We need to grow our own leaders from within.”

Even if San Diego’s cost of living were to decrease over the next few years, the leadership deficit would still remain a significant problem for the county’s nonprofit sector and for nonprofits across the nation. Areas such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Fla., New York City and greater New York are all having just as much difficulty solving the nonprofit leadership deficit as San Diegan organizations.

Mannino said all nonprofits should plan in a manner similar to the Vista Community Clinic.

“Theoretically, all nonprofit organizations should start training their future executive directors. Realistically, however, not all nonprofits are able to do so because the majority of these organizations are small with few staff members and a small financial budget,” Mannino says. “It is very important for board members to be aware of the fact that many executive directors plan on leaving their organization in the next five years.”

Many research studies and individuals involved in the nonprofit sector believe that nonprofit boards and executive directors need to take the time to strengthen the areas in their organization and partnership that need improvement, in order to help alleviate any transition problems they are facing.

“This is an opportunity for the board of directors to revaluate how they hire and fire executive directors,” said Thompson. “There should be just as much focus on the dysfunction and organization of the board of directors as there is placed on the future successors of executive directors. The board should rethink their roles and become more progressive, more aware, and more engaged in their organizations, which will in turn create better relationships between executive directors and board members, healthier leaders, and an overall better organization.”

Please contact Valentine Moossa directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips at Or send a letter to the editor.

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