As a sector, we’re undoubtedly in the midst of some major leadership challenges associated with the transition of an entire generation of Baby Boomer nonprofit leaders into retirement. Call it a crisis, call it a deficit, call it what you damn well will. Our interest need not be in wordplay, but in solving the problem before it hits us smack dab in the heart of our organizations. Much of the action being taken to address these leadership issues has focused primarily on executive transition. However, we should not only be concerned with the replacement of these exiting executive directors, but with a national process of envisioning together what the future of nonprofit leadership will look like. Some of the anxiety around the need for new leaders to step up and fill our sector is that new leadership will, necessarily, look differently generationally, and the sector hasn’t made much progress in building a culture of intergenerational dialogue to make it easier for emerging leaders to “emerge.” But what’s the real problem here? Can’t we just test our assumptions to make room in our current nonprofit culture for a new prototype of leadership? We know that change is going to happen (and is in fact happening as you read this), and we need to realize that it’s in the best interest of the sector to start thinking seriously about our future. As a weary police officer might say when arresting a resisting suspect, “Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be.” Instead, let’s see if we can make some progress in coming to terms with what the future of nonprofit leadership really looks like. There are four concepts we need to consider in thinking about how the next generation will come to the work differently in shaping social change.
1. It Looks Different
The next generation of nonprofit leaders are younger and more racially diverse. The demographics of whom is coming to the work of social change is shifting, and the image of the Baby Boomer white male at the helm of organizations is no more. Future leaders are the children of Baby Boomers and browner than your average executive. To be more specific, I’m the perfect prototype for this trend: African-American, twentysomething, and female. To harness this kind of available talent, the nonprofit sector will need to learn how to tap into different networks and promote and respect diversity within our organizations.
2. It Thinks Differently
New nonprofit leaders have different views on organizational culture and leadership than Baby Boomers. We don’t want the traditional hierarchy of current organizations. The next generation is more open to collaboration, shared leadership, and leveraging social networks. Co-directorships are more attractive to Generations X & Y than going it alone, and there is high value placed on innovation vs. the status quo. As the Internet generation, we believe that the use of technology is key to doing nonprofit work more efficiently. Recognizing and respecting these intrinsic differences in mindsets will be important as both generations work together in new leadership roles.
3. It Was Educated Differently
While Baby Boomer leaders may have come to their positions with a passion for change and experience in organizing or service delivery, the next generation of leaders are more likely to have pursued higher education or professional certification. Most have earned a Bachelor’s degree, and with the proliferation of specialized nonprofit management graduate programs around the country, incoming nonprofit executives are increasingly entering the field with a Master’s degree as well. Boards of directors need to realize that younger generations of leaders are subsequently facing higher costs and student debt for education than Baby Boomers, and require a higher rate of compensation.
4. It Had Different Experiences
Baby Boomers lived through and were motivated to start nonprofits in exciting times of national change such as the Women’s Rights and Civil Rights movements, while Generations X and Y didn’t have the chance to experience these movements and lead within them firsthand. Even so, other national issues like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, and the challenges within the Bush administration similarly compel younger generations to lead where they are called to make a difference. We should not discount the passion and experience of either generation, but rather embrace the inspiration that brought both into the field of nonprofit work.
While there are significant differences in Baby Boomer leaders and the next generation, you can bet your bottom dollar that one thing remains the same: new nonprofit leaders have the same passion and dedication as those who started so many successful social change movements in the ‘60s. We as a sector need to be very intentional in leveraging the resources we already have, and stop making it so hard on ourselves to address the leadership challenges ahead.
Rosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, DC area. She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.