There has been a slew of new studies showing that a large percentage of older leaders are planning to leave their positions in the next five years.1 But at the same time, recent studies by the AARP and Harvard School of Public Health point out that the Baby Boomers’ departure from the workplace will be increasingly influenced by their projected longevity, concerns about rising healthcare and other costs, and the desire to continue to make a contribution to society.2 In social change organizations, low pay and lack of retirement funds add to these concerns. In fact, when asked what he would do next, one older participant responded:

“To be honest, I have no idea. I’ll probably keep going, doing this stuff until I drop dead. In fact, I’ll probably drop dead right in this chair. Like I always tell my staff, one day somebody’s going to come in in the morning, I’m going to be dead. So that’s as much as I can tell you about that. I have no idea.”

In 2002, the Building Movement Project conducted a qualitative study of generational differences in 16 small and mid-sized social change organizations. Based on in-depth interviews with older and younger leaders and with younger staff, the study explores differences and similarities between older and younger people working in service, advocacy, and organizing groups. We asked these leaders about their current jobs and organizations, the motivations and challenges surrounding their work, and their views of leadership.

What did the study tell us? The results certainly gave a more nuanced story than is often found in the popular literature. We found that those under age 40 working for social change were as committed to their work and organizations as those in the Baby Boom generation. Younger directors and staff put in long hours, worried about making an impact, and were committed for the long-term to social change work. Both generations were focused on how to sustain their organizations; and both expressed their doubts about formal training of nonprofit leaders, especially in academic programs—where they found the focus remained on skills rather than the critical analysis needed for making systemic change.

However, there were some differences between the older (more than 45 years old) and younger respondents in the study. They described different pathways for how they came to the work, related differently to the tensions of the work/personal life divide, and directors had implemented different decision-making structures in their organizations. These areas and the implications are described in more detail below.

The older directors in the study came to social change work primarily during the movements of the 1960s and 70s. Their frames of reference and their language were shaped by these experiences. The younger respondents respect these experiences, but they use different frames of reference about how to mobilize and affect social change. In other words, we found that although younger and older respondents shared principles, they diverged on language and tactics.

Most of the people we talked with—younger and older—described the enormous amount of time and energy they put into the job, both because they loved the work and because the demands were so high. Older participants rarely noted a problem balancing their work and personal life. They had found various ways to cope, ranging from involving their partner and children in the organization to seeing the mission of their work as the mission of their life. In contrast, younger respondents were struggling with the work/personal life divide, expressing growing concern about how they could do their job and still have time outside of their work, especially to raise children. One woman director explained how she would have to leave her position because she did not have the time with her children she felt she needed. Several of the younger men who were planning families talked extensively about their anxiety that they would be unable to continue in their current positions and at the same time fulfill the expectation and desire to be an active participant in family life.

Many of the younger directors we interviewed were keen on trying alternative models for structuring their organizations in ways that spread the power and authority among staff. While older directors had mostly settled into a traditional hierarchal model, albeit with staff input, their younger peers were looking at staff decision-making, co-directorships, and leadership teams as new ways to increase participation and decision-making responsibility. Even those who stayed with more traditional models were often trying to give more power and authority to staff than their previous (older) directors had allowed.

Last year, we took the study on the road and met with young leaders, especially young leaders of color, in nine U.S. cities. We presented the findings, listened to their reactions and experiences, and heard ideas for ways to address some of the obstacles they faced.3 What struck us was how much they honored what had come before them, how dedicated they were to carrying on nonprofit social change work for the next 40 years, and how little credibility they found they had in trying to move forward. It was not that they wanted to discount the work of the Baby Boom generation; it is that they wanted to work in partnership so that they could address movement building in the context of the new millennium.

Changing generations is a difficult process. Older nonprofit leaders have seen many gains, but they also know that we are sustaining numerous losses. Younger leaders are energetic, committed, and able to move the work of an older generation forward. As one person told us:

“There needs to be honest dialogue and reflection to build those facilitative skills across all generations. There needs to be a de-romanticizing of the experiences of the civil rights movement—an educational and honest conversation between those who went through it and the rest of us who did not. Bring those elders into the room and have an honest conversation with them. We need to be realistic about the expectations of what we can do to be prepared for the long haul. It’s not about what we can do with two years or five years, or 10 years. We need to get beyond this place being all about us, and us alone, so that we can look outside of ourselves, so we can cut ourselves some slack, so we don’t burn ourselves out. We need to build more partnerships, look around to action, and take an active interest in what other people are doing. And not just pretend we’re the only ones doing this work. We need to look forward in unexpected places. We need to open our arms . . . to really build a movement that includes everyone.”

(To read a full-length description of our report, please go to


1. For example, Birdsell and Muzzio. 2003. “The Next Leaders: UWNYC Grantee Leadership Development and Succession Management Needs”; and Hinden and Hull. 2003. “Executive Leadership Transition: What We Know,” Nonprofit Quarterly.

2. Harvard School of Public Health – Met Life Foundation. 2004. “Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement”; and AARP. 2003. “Staying Ahead of the Curve: The AARP Working in Retirement Study.”

3. The follow-up study was conceived by Ludovic Blain, who facilitated the sessions.

Frances Kunreuther is the director of the Building Movement into the Nonprofit Sector Project, housed at Demos.