Nonprofits battle shortage of time, talent

DETROIT -- At 31, four years after completing the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Detroit program, Mark Ostach sits on the board of the Neighborhood Service Organization, a sizable nonprofit that offers a wide variety of programs ranging from suicide prevention to early-childhood education to homeless relief.

Daniel Robin, also 31, serves on the board of the Downtown Synagogue, a 90-year-old city institution enjoying a rejuvenation with the influx of younger city residents. It was one of two boards he was involved with, but he had to give up the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Detroit.

Ostach is concentrating on the NSO’s ongoing renovation of the former Michigan Bell Building, which will be the organization’s home and provide 150 apartments for homeless people.

Robin is dedicated to the new life coursing through the synagogue. He think it needs him more than YNPN Detroit, and, the simple fact was, he didn’t have time for both groups.

Ostach’s board service costs him about four hours of work a week, but his company, Digerati, supports him in it.

Robin’s service requires a monthly meeting, plus “10, 20, 30 hours a month, easily.” And while his employer, the Judson Center, is a nonprofit itself, there are but 24 hours in the day.

Ostach and Robin represent a new generation of leadership, dedicated to improving life in Detroit and eager to serve. They also illustrate some of the ways board service -- a necessary step for developing leadership in Detroit, or any community -- is changing for younger people.

The path that led Ostach into this service position is, in many ways, well-trodden. Others at Digerati had gone through Leadership Detroit and recommended him for a slot. Once in the program, the relationships he developed guided him to the NSO; a match was made to the benefit of both – board positions polish professional resumés, and organizations get the time and talent they need.

Robin also got involved in volunteerism through the age-old word-of-mouth system. But he’s at an age when, if he wants to get ahead, he has to work hard. And he does. He works “no less than 12-hour days.”

In other words, he has only so much time for community service.

Diana Kern is vice president of Nonprofit Enterprise at Work, which runs workshops for young people interested in service, but unsure of how to begin. She said Robin’s conundrum is common.

“The real thing for younger people in southeast Michigan -- those under 30 -- is not that there’s a lack of (bodies), but a lack of time,” Kern said. With both nonprofits and the corporate sectors running on leaner staffs and tighter budgets, there are fewer employers willing to give workers the latitude to, for instance, attend meetings during work hours.

Mariam Noland, president of the Detroit Community Foundation, agrees.

For board positions, Noland might need “highly skilled investment people, accountants, business model experts.” The service isn’t always easy, and will take time and effort from those who are seated. In the past, employers saw service as a uniformly good thing; many still do. However, she said, “The world has changed.”

That drives nonprofit executives to network constantly, always on the lookout for potential board members with the specific skills needed to keep the organization running smoothly. But, Noland admitted, “I don’t think we have a real supply chain.

“If you look out 10 years, boards will look different. They’ll be more diverse, certainly. Our region is getting older, so we need to find that next generation of civic leaders, with skills that match the questions of the day that these organizations will be facing then.”

Ned Staebler, vice president for economic development at Wayne State University, says making those connections with young would-be leaders is essential.

“Less than 25 percent of Michiganders have a college degree,” he said. “In Minnesota, it’s closer to 35 percent. We have a shortage of talent relative to our peers. And young talent, in particular, is very mobile. ”

To start to address the problem, Wayne State will open admissions for its second class of Detroit Revitalization Fellows, a two-year program largely supported by the foundation community, designed to attract, train and launch high-quality, leadership-ready talent into the city, with an emphasis on revitalization work.

The competitive program (the first class attracted 650 applicants for 29 spots) seeks to settle an array of young professionals in jobs in and around the city. Connecting them in a group will, it is hoped, break down some of the barriers that can grow between organizations working in related fields.

Of the first class, Staebler said, about half have ties to the region and about half came from out of town.

“We want new blood,” he said. “There’s no quota on anything, but we wanted diversity in lots of things -- skills, race, geography, professional interest, etc. You get better results that way.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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Tue, 02/26/2013 - 11:36am
You bring up some good points that nonprofits have been struggling with for a long time. The problem of time and talent is not just a Michigan problem, but also a national one. Perhaps there could be roles to "co-share" employees within nonprofits to dedicate their time to service in different groups. I relate to Daniel Robin in that I am the same age and am working/volunteering for a variety of nonprofits but cannot keep up the service time in the way I would wish.
Wed, 02/27/2013 - 5:18pm
This is a broad issue that non-profits must address, other than just adding 'young adult divisions' for fundraising purposes. The 21st Century board is going to look drastically different, and should. New board governance models that move away from standing committees to shorter-term task forces are also popular and effective. Boards, and their nomination committees, must look at the populations they serve and be reflective of those communities, as well.
Jeremy Covert
Mon, 06/12/2017 - 1:00pm

These insights are true. Non-profits have always struggled with finding talent. Generally, a for-profit business solves this problem with paying higher wages and being competitive in the job marketplace. Higher wages can sometimes be contradictory to the non-profits goals/mission. This is because you would like workers that are motivated by the mission and not the rewards. I don't see this problem going away anytime soon; just have to hire and keep the passionate employees!