Rural Support Partners, mission-driven management consultants with a participatory approach to create lasting, equitable change in rural areas. Rural community and economic development.

Nonprofit Leadership in the Rural Southeast

Nonprofit Leadership in the Rural Southeast

A Regional Study of Executive Transition and Next Generation Leadership

Nonprofits in rural places receive far less funding per capita than their urban counterparts, so they have to do more with less resources. Nonprofit leadership in these organizations bear the brunt of that stress. The Annie E. Casey Foundation wanted to understand the state of nonprofit executive leadership in the rural Southeast, so they commissioned RSP to survey nonprofits across the region and present their findings.

We’ve included a high-level snapshot of the major findings here, followed by the abstract of the report. You may download the full report here.

  1. Executives plan to leave their jobs, but not the nonprofit sector, within five years.
  2. Executives lack support in their roles as executive director.
  3. Executives feel that they make significant sacrifices to lead nonprofits.
  4. Executives are concerned about finding future leaders for their organizations.
  5. Many nonprofits lack key capacities needed to transition well.
  6. Nonprofits are doing some things that may attract the next generation of leaders, but not many.
  7. Rural nonprofits differ from urban nonprofits in some intriguing ways.


This study presents findings from an online survey with 267 nonprofit organizations across the rural southeastern United States. It focuses on the generational shift occurring in nonprofits, as leaders over 50 move out and younger leaders move in. Around two-thirds of the executive directors we surveyed plan to leave their jobs within the next five years. Executive directors report that they are overworked and underpaid. They lack adequate support from their boards, their fellow staff members, and their funders. Nonprofits lack the money they need to do their work well; they report a particular need for more general operating support and multi-year grants. Even though the generational transition in executive leadership is occurring and will likely increase, many nonprofit organizations may not be ready for executive transitions. Many of the nonprofits we surveyed lack key organizational capacities needed to make smooth, effective transitions to new executive leadership. A key to a successful transfer of leadership in the nonprofit sector will be attracting the next generation of young leaders. In previous research, next generation leaders have outlined some of the changes in the sector that they would like to see. The nonprofits that we surveyed are doing a few things to attract young leaders, but not many. Finally, our data suggest that rural nonprofits
may need more support than urban nonprofits during this generational shift. In sum, rural southern nonprofits are overworked and underfunded. Executives are stretched too thin, with too many job responsibilities, inadequate salaries, and too little support. Most executives are planning to leave their jobs in the near future. Our findings suggest that collectively, as a sector, we may not yet be ready for the generational shift that is occurring.


The chart above is from Finding 7, “Rural Nonprofits Differ from Urban Nonprofits in Some Intriguing Ways,” on page 28 of the report.

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