What is your strategy for investing in your "middles?"

You absolutely must develop bench strength. Think about conferences as professional development opportunities for your middle management.

This past week, I attended an important conference for nonprofits in the Bay Area, CompassPoint’s NonProfit Day 2010. CompassPoint provides excellent training, workshops, and convening opportunities for the sector and this is one of their signature events. The theme was “Telling Your Story” with the keynote speaker being a professional filmmaker, Peter Bratt. There was also an interesting storytelling “competition” for the attendees, run by a nonprofit called StoryCorps. I applaud CompassPoint for putting forth good content for their audience, and I’ve been impressed by the responsiveness of their key staff in charge of organizing conferences, Nelson Layag.
I’ve noticed a tendency that these large conferences are much more heavily attended by staff levels below the ED at established agencies, EDs of startups, board members, and others interested in the sector. Scanning the attendee list, there were only a few EDs of established nonprofits there. I had some excellent conversations with them which I’ll be sharing in my next post. 
But the preponderance of “middles” of agencies at conferences like CompassPoint’s is, I think, a strength. I talked with two development staff from a well-established nonprofit with a national footprint who themselves were very new to the sector. Their ED didn’t attend, but I sensed this was one of their first forays into the broader sector without the guiding presence of their boss.  They raved about how much they were absorbing and how much they enjoyed witnessing the breadth of the field.
Investing in “middles” like these two is very important to the sector and one of the key benefits of conferences like CompassPoint’s. Most nonprofits simply lack the resources to run intentional professional development programs internally.  As a result, the bench strength can be too thin at organizations. These conferences are a very cost efficient way to provide at least some investment in the middles and I would recommend EDs to build these kinds of events into their budgets for their staff.
My one suggestion is to trot out my old soap box and as I’ve done before, encourage conference organizers to deliberately structure more networking time into the main schedule (versus tacking it on at the end or in the margins). “Middles” would especially benefit from connecting and sharing learning from peers at other agencies, and have even fewer opportunities than EDs to extend their reach outside of their own agencies.
Hey, are there any “middles” out there reading this? What would help you in your growth?

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