Kelvin Taketa, President, CEO Hawaii Community Foundation By Scott Radway

October, 2007

For the past nine years, Kelvin Taketa has run the Hawaii Community Foundation, where he has been in a unique position to take stock of the nonprofit sector in Hawaii. Taketa sat down with Hawaii Business to talk about an impending nonprofit leadership void and why he has high hopes for the future.

What I also see is that a lot of executive directors of nonprofits organizations are not lasting.

Q: Why is the nonprofit sector faced with a coming leadership shortage?

A: The leadership phenomenon is a national phenomenon in part because the nonprofit sector is populated by baby boomers who came of age in the years of Camelot and the Kennedy administration, people with great idealism. It is those people who have really led and built the nonprofit sector all these years, including in Hawaii. Those are the people who are reaching the age now that they want to either retire or work part time so they can pursue other things in their lives.

Q: Why are executives not lasting?
The job of an executive director at most nonprofit organizations is really challenging because most nonprofits organizations are thinly staffed. You are doing everything. So the jobs are 24/7 and you start to burn out. In addition to that, for many of them that see retirement on the horizon, they have to consider seriously moving into jobs that make more money or give significant retirement benefits.

Q: So there is an opening for younger people?
For younger people there is a financial challenge and a career challenge to pursue nonprofit careers. The financial challenge is that many of the people in Gen Y and to a certain extent Gen X are paying off an enormous amount of student loans. They can’t afford to work in the nonprofit sector. Then there’s housing costs.

The other part is the career part. We are seeing a lot of younger Hawaii residents who aspire to leadership positions in the nonprofit sector, but they want to have clear pathways to increasing levels of leadership and responsibility, so they stay engaged. A lot of younger residents in Hawaii sometimes they feel they are not allowed opportunities to move up.

Q: Does that seem counterintuitive, considering the baby boomer trend?
It does. The math doesn’t seem like it would work, but I am hearing the anecdotes. We have a state where the predominant cultures put a great deal of weight on the wisdom of older people. That’s an Asian thing. That’s a Native Hawaiian thing. And sometimes some of the younger people feel there is not as much of an opportunity to lead. The challenge for people like myself is to encourage them and nurture them and help them secure those positions of leadership, because, after all, the decisions we are making today, they are going to have to live with a lot longer then I will.

Q: Is there a barrier in hawaii for young leaders?
My feeling is that it’s not that there’s a barrier, it’s just that there isn’t a bridge. I think that, for one thing, a lot of the young aspiring leaders in our community need to broaden their own networks and perspectives and they need to have some patience with how that is going to happen. On the other hand, a lot of nonprofit organizations might not even know they are out there. There needs to be a bridge between the nonprofits and young aspiring leaders.

But it is not just a phenomenon of age. It is an issue of economic security. I talk to a lot of people, like young lawyers, who are middle-age lawyers, who are senior partners, who would all like to leave the law practice and go to work for a nonprofit organization, but just can’t afford to do it. We have a real challenge in raising the level of compensation in the nonprofit agencies.

Q: How is the younger generation compared to current leaders when it comes to giving back?
Hawaii has always been blessed by really great business leaders who have also been phenomenal in their level of participation in things broader than just their business. People have served on the Board of Regents and other things like that.

What I think is different now, when you look at Gen X and Gen Y, the lines between nonprofits and the private sector are much more blurred. You have social entrepreneurs that are trying to build businesses that have social values at their core, the Hoala Greevys, the Dustin Shindos. Then you have other people, the James Koshibas of the world, bringing a certain business acumen to the nonprofit sector.

These people move in a seamless way. They don’t distinguish things in the way perhaps that we did: that if you worked in the nonprofit sector or the public sector that is what you were. The younger people don’t distinguish themselves that way.

Q: What’s your advice to people about being a successful leader in Hawaii?
In Hawaii, you have to listen, you have to be a good listener. You need to pay attention to relationships and how relationships are all connected here. And you need to have a certain kind of humility. And humility does not mean you don’t have courage or a certain kind of self-confidence. Hawaii is a people place and if people don’t feel you respect them or don’t care about them enough to think about them, it is really hard to lead here.

Q: With all the problems facing our community and a potential leadership shortage, are you worried?
We have a community that is being divided. If you are poor, you have extremely different dimensions to your lifestyles and opportunities than people who are rich. I don’t think that is what anyone wants.

But I am not pessimistic. I have always felt Hawaii is a place where a handful of people who are committed to making something happen can actually make it happen. That tradition continues and that is why nurturing young leadership is so important because we need young people to help us.

Q: Given all that, how would you pitch someone on enterting the nonprofit sector?
Everybody has bad days at work, but if you work for a nonprofit, or most nonprofits, you rarely roll out of bed and ask why you’re going to work. That’s my pitch.

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