A Retiring Nonprofit Exec Speaks Out on the So-Called “Leadership Gap”

Print Share on LinkedIn More


Nonprofit Leadership

Today, among the member agencies of United Neighborhood Houses, the umbrella association of 38 settlement houses and community centers in NYC, exactly half of our 37 executive directors are age 60 and over. Over the last five years, our small network has seen evidence of the much-discussed generational shift in leadership that has been predicted for the nonprofit human services field and in other industries as well. In 2013 alone, five executive directors from our system retired from their positions.

Cause for alarm? I don’t think so. Over the last several years, we have heard the siren song of worry as researchers and pundits predict that the generational shift in leadership as baby-boomers retire or semi-retire will lead to a leadership gap or worse. Numerous scholarly articles, such as this one by the Bridgespan Group, surveys like a recent Saba report, as well as newspaper articles like these in the NonProfit Times and the Chronicle of Philanthropy, have been published on the subject. Predictions abound of rudderless ships, a shrunken or limited leadership supply chain, Gen-X’ers who don’t know how to stay in one place for more than a couple of years and, worst of all, corporate émigrés who want to try their hand at “something meaningful” and want to step into these jobs. All reflecting a dire forecast that our sector cannot possibly survive without the baby boomers!

Wrong. And this comes from one of those baby boomers who, in fact, has plans to relinquish her leadership post this year.

I have full confidence that there is a supply of talented leaders who wait in the wings. I believe new leaders will help inject new energy and perhaps even new meaning into the work. Just as my generation, mainly folks who were in college in the late 1960s and early 1970s, became imbued with the spirit that we could “change the world” and “make a difference” through our participation in the explosive social movements of that era that forever changed our worldview—anti-Vietnam war, equal rights for women, African-Americans, the LGBT community—so too are there people now in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who come with the same set of values and ideals as we had, and who might even be smarter about managing people and technology than we were. As quiet as it’s kept, we baby boomers really do not have the monopoly on compassion, commitment to social justice, or very hard work.

I am convinced there is a new generation fully prepared to assume leadership roles in our sector, with the right and relevant experience and possibly better equipped than many boomers were when we took these positions. Moreover, not only do they have passion and a sense of mission, but they Tweet and Instagram, too!

What is my cause for optimism? Every day at UNH, I meet people with incredible drive, great credentials, and a tangible passion for social justice. Some of them work right beside me, and some come to see me because they are looking for help finding a job in our field. They want to do this work! And they are so impressive!

They are champing at the bit to help nonprofits succeed and achieve their missions. I spend a lot of time counseling these new leaders to resist the entrepreneurial pull to start their own nonprofits and instead join agencies like settlement houses, which, despite their longevity and size, still provide incredible opportunities for people to innovate, to try new approaches, and to make a difference.

I am bullish about the future leadership of our sector. I hope the boards of directors who do the hiring of the next crop of executive directors in our system recognize that diversity in leadership—age, gender, race & ethnicity, sexual orientation—is a tremendous advantage for their organizations, and that they will come to see what I do: a glorious and exciting future for our field.

 This article was first published at New York Nonprofit Media on May 8, 2015.


  • Janet Kington

    Thanks for the perspective.

    Please tell me about the artwork!

  • Margot H Knight

    I couldn’t agree more. At an Americans for the Arts meeting several years ago, there was some hand-wringing about the leadership gap. A 30-something man stood up and declared that he and his colleagues were ready to lead but the baby-boomers just needed to get out of the way. Afterwards I told him privately that as soon as my 401k and savings got large enough, I could do what he suggested. The sad truth is that a life in arts administration does not an early retirement make!

  • Glenn McFarlane

    I too am optimistic for the future, but for different reasons. If the future is to be better then we have to start and sustain an honest, transparent conversation about the condition of the lives of those we serve. Too many of our organizations are defaulting to survival instead of achieving our mission.

    I have worked for YBGR since 1990 and will retire in July. During this period we have helped 10’s of thousands of children and families. Many of these children and families have enjoyed benefit and success from the excellent care and treatment provided by our staff. Unfortunately no one knows the real numbers and real outcomes because the resources have not been sufficient to maintain relationships and communication. In truth we all default to our financial reality when making leadership decisions.

    During my 26 years I have participated in developing programs that have exploded government expenditures for educational, human service and mental health assistance. At the same time I have watched the number of children and families needing services explode as well. It is time for a rewind. The needs in terms of numbers and intensity of problems are out stripping our efforts and ideas to solve these issues.

    This trend will not improve without transparency and honesty. It is time for ALL stakeholders to engage in an honest dialogue and research that looks at the root causes of the problems we are wanting to correct. More money and more programs will not accomplish this. I hope there are new leaders who will be as bold and confrontational as necessary to help us get to the root causes and solutions as a society. The way we have been doing things has not worked.

  • Bob

    I just recently moved into exactly this position, replacing a retiring baby boomer. I had put my name in the ring for several positions and came away with some interesting observations. First, in some cases, baby boomers started and grew organizations to the point where they have become fairly large entities. Now that they are retiring they want someone with experience running a large organization to take their place. Well, there aren’t many folks in the younger generations that have been able to have that experience, so that restricts the pool of candidates. In some cases, the organizations serve regions that simply aren’t attractive to very many people, so that makes it all the harder to attract candidates.

    Second, I’ve quickly come to the realization that I probably won’t be in this role for more than 10 years. My predecessor held the position for 20+ years. While I’ve been able to slide into my new position easily, I’m also finding myself tightening up quite a bit on the policies and procedures side of things. I’ve decided that I don’t want to leave that behind when I go, so I shouldn’t stay long enough to let that happen.

    Third, while my previous experience included leading a smaller nonprofit and taking it through a successful merger, staving off a hostile takeover (yes, apparently that does happen in the nonprofit sector!), and more than quadrupling the organization in terms of staff, budget and services, I now realize that I was a terrible interviewee, even with smaller organizations. I was too confident in my abilities, credentials and track record, so I rarely got past a first interview during my job search. I ended up landing with an organization that I had worked for previously because my predecessor basically hand-picked me as his replacement. When it comes time for me to look for a new position I already know that I’m going to take the time to work with a professional to prepare myself for a job search because I was clearly not ready regardless of my past.

    All in all, it was a great experience for me to actually get out and look for a new position simply so I could learn some lessons about the nonprofit job market and about myself. A colleague told me of a friend that puts out her resume once a year just to stay “fresh.” I now understand why.

  • Albert Ruesga

    Nancy, thank you for your post. I most likely contributed to the collective hand-wringing about the mass retirement of the baby boomers when my colleagues and I published “Ready to Lead?” [https://www.compasspoint.org/sites/default/files/docs/research/521_readytolead2008.pdf], although my hope was that this publication would help smooth the way for the next generation of nonprofit leaders.

    My own view is that many of us old salts in the field, me included, suffer from a kind of narcissistic personality disorder one of whose symptoms is the idea that things will fall apart after we leave. They won’t. There are plenty of young leaders now and coming after us who will have many opportunities to learn from the overwhelming number of mistakes we made. They’ll need this knowledge to clean up the godawful mess we’ve left them.

  • Rusty Stahl

    Nancy – thank you for stilling the alarms!

    I want to invite you and your readers to visit Talent Philanthropy Project (www.talentphilanthropy.org), where we are working to build a people-powered social sector for the 21st century.

    We totally agree with you there is not a leadership deficit in the nonprofit sector. And I am thankful for you publicly sharing this perspective as a Baby Boomer and a thoughtful executive in transition (congratulations on your decision, by the way!).

    But you may agree with me that there IS a deficit of investment in nonprofit leaders.

    For example, my research with the Foundation Center found that only 1% of foundation grant dollars have gone to investments in staff development at nonprofits over the last 20 years (www.talentphilanthropy.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Talent-Philanthropy-Article-in-Fdn-Rvw.pdf). And groups as wide-ranging as the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the Center for Effective Philanthropy have all recently issued reports showing the economic and professional challenges facing people in nonprofit careers, and the lack of capacity of nonprofit organizations to support their people.

    The reasons that many Baby Boomers are not retiring may include my friend Albert Ruesga’s “narcissism” (he is too harsh on himself), but in their short paper on “The New Lifecycle of Work “, Frances Kunreuther et al find more complex reasons, including the fact that they and their organizations under-invested in retirement savings, and that funders may take a dangerously destabilizing “wait and see” approach to continued support, rather than proactively helping organizations navigate complex executive transitions (www.buildingmovement.org/pdf/TheNewLifecycleofWork.pdf). Those are chronic, systemic challenges, not generation-specific personality issues.

    We must close the gap in support for nonprofit leaders at all career stages — Boomers, Xers, and Millennials alike. To do this, those with power in foundations and nonprofits must step-up institutional investments of time, talent and treasure to ensure that we can improve our ability to recruit, develop, retain and retire diverse people across the social sector.

    In my own small effort at intergenerational solidarity, Talent Philanthropy blends the spirit of the ’60s with the social media of today in our tagline: #FundThePeople!

  • michael brand

    I too am excited for the next generation of leaders. The boomers and gen xers did their thing from the 30-40 year environment of the 70s-00s….but the environment has dramatically changed. We are seeing old streams of funding and old forms of organization dying. I have no idea what will replace the old ways, but I see an energy and creativity in the millennials which bodes well for the future. By all means, lets step aside and unleash them to create the future.

  • Linda

    I think that I must be the only voice of the very small grassroots organization with a Board effort, today. I too am a Baby Boomer. I look around me and I see a ton of organizations that start out the way my own did — just a group of people who want to help others in some way. I worked hard to build an executive group — a Board — out of people who had no experience serving as executives. Around me today, I see many, many individuals who are working themselves silly, with at most, one other individual trying to help them cope.

    I don’t know where to suggest anyone find good prospective Board members, and I don’t know how to encourage individuals running programs, to start seeing what they do as a program. When I talk about programs, eyes glaze over among these folks. They don’t feel they have time to do anything beyond what they do, day-to-day. I know those pressures, too. I’m glad that the bit of time I’ve invested in learning how to lead a group, has helped my organization to look a lot more like a bigger organization. Still, I am doing the 990 for our organization this week. I’ll probably write and track the grant proposals. No one I have talked to has the confidence or the skills to do those things for an organization that is on the ground, doing work.

    So for smaller community organizations, I think there may indeed be a real, imminent crisis. I do see larger organizations, national presences, that seem to have an interest in this situation, seem to see why it matters. And yet, those larger organizations do not seem able to perform the work of the local groups; and in many respects the national organizations can’t quite grasp what the issues are, at a more local level.

    Prominent people in the local community? We don’t see them. I’m not sure what they do with their time, but they are not attending street fairs or festivals; they aren’t going to community gatherings.

    In my area there are a preponderance of these very small organizations – so I wonder what the future holds, for many of them! I am glad that so many are so optimistic.

  • Lorna McLeod

    As a slightly pre-boomer who has been active in nonprofit work and social justice since I was a teenager, I’m heartened and happy to see Nancy Wackstein’s essay. I, too, feel wonderfully positive about the new crop of leaders that will be assuming positions in organizations throughout our nation in the next several years. I’ve coached, consulted, mentored and worked beside many of them who range in age from late 20s to late 30s.

    They are passionate about social justice, often if not usually well-trained in leadership (certainly much more so than I was at their age), educated, compassionate and filled with fire to make the kind of changes so many of us older folk wanted to make when we were young. It’s exciting to know the work will carry on, in many cases even more ably than we could deliver. Let us put our fullest support behind them, mentor when they need it, and give to causes we believe in so they can continue the work.

  • Prentice Zinn

    Geez Nancy, where the heck were you several years ago when the great nonprofit and philanthropic echo chamber was all in a tizzy in an epic hand-wringing fest?

    I gained 10 pounds at all of those lunchtime panel presentations in my desperate hunt for data substantiating all of the noisy speculation about the impending cataclysmic leadership implosion.

    I too, see tons of new leadership taking the reins and dramatically reshaping how a vibrant nonprofit sector responds to the pressing issues of the day. They inspire me as I toddle into my geezerhood in search of pants with elastic waistbands.

    And sadly, I see far too many bright stars patiently waiting in the wings in organizations where leaders cling to their positions and power. I worry that they won’t wait much longer.

    I wish we would have spent all of those Henny Penny hand-wringing grants to help us think about a sectoral Roto-Rooter strategy for the nonprofit sector that can help leaders of all ages learn to let go or transition on. Maybe you can help me invent a nonprofit Roomba!

    Thank you for your stories and reminding — especially from the settlement house tradition!

  • michael clark

    Nancy has nailed this issue. Not only was the message of the great leadership vacuum over-hyped, many of us said so at the time. Younger leaders are moving up, they are frequently very talented, and more are on the way – from within our nonprofit organizations and within our sector.