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.