Thursday, May 6, 2010

Five Generational Leadership Trends Every Nonprofit Professional Should Know & Resources

Sarah Fischler and Lauren Price, Community Resource Center. Sarah is the Director of Consulting and Special Projects at CRC and Board President of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Denver , and Lauren is CRC’s Director of Rural Outreach. They can be found on Twitter: @sarahfischler, and @laurenelizab.

Late April was a busy time for Denver nonprofit professionals! Lauren and Sarah both had the opportunity to attend the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network National Leaders Conference, hosted by YNPN Denver. Sarah also attended parts of the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) and Council on Foundations annual conferences, while Lauren followed these conferences on Twitter and webTV.

Sessions on the practical aspects of leadership development and the implications for the sector were prominently featured at all three conferences. The transfer of leadership from the Silent Generation (b. 1928 –1945) and Boomers (b. 1946-1964) to Gen Xers (b. 1965 – 1980) and Millennials (b. after 1980) is well underway. This transition has implications for the ways we communicate, strategize, fundraise and implement our programs. All relating back to the generational leadership shift, these five trends were echoed across the three conferences

1. “Next” Generation to “Now” Generation: Most of the dialogue about the young leaders characterizes challenges for the sector in terms of preparing next generation leaders and developing strategies to stem crisis. It is time to stop talking about young leaders as the next generation, and start talking about the now generation. As superstar blogger Rosetta Thurman explains in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, earlier this year, “I began using the term ‘now generation leaders’ because the reality is that young nonprofit leaders who are typically referenced as the next generation are not as young as people think. We're not all college kids anymore… Although we will certainly be the ones leading tomorrow, we're also the ones who are already leading today.”

More than ever before, it is possible to be a young professional with significant nonprofit leadership experience. Robert Egger, founder of the DC Central Kitchen and a prominent national nonprofit leader, championed this concept during his keynote address at the YNPN conference: “When YNPN first got started, the only accurate word in its name was ‘young’. Now, YNPN is a powerful network of seasoned pros.” Changing the language we use to describe our emerging leadership from “generation next” to “generation now” can help reframe the ways in which leaders from different generations see each other.

2. Shared Leadership: Much of the writing on the topic of the leadership “crisis” facing the nonprofit sector pits generations against one another – one group is leading, the other is waiting in the wings. This is the kind of language that talks about Gen Xers and Millennials and their role in nonprofits, rather than engaging us in a genuine dialogue. Language like this reflects a black and white view of a nuanced, complex situation, and it only polarizes the dialogue about current and future leadership challenges for nonprofits and philanthropy. Language like this contributes to an “us vs. them” thinking, which does nothing to address the real challenges of the sector. This got us thinking about a conversation we had a few weeks back: Lauren felt the language surrounding the Pew Research Center’s February report (“Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next”) was particularly guilty of this kind of “us vs. them” approach. Perhaps it was due to the webcast forum of the panel introducing the report, but it felt a little bit like the presenters were excited biologists who had just discovered a new species – familiar, of course, but look how weird these Millennials are, and how different from us! Cool!

In a session entitled “Trading Power” at the Council on Foundations conference, the facilitators offered a new construct for thinking about these changing dynamics in sector leadership: identifying what the “next generation” has to offer in exchange for what seasoned leaders can provide. This strengths-based thinking can result in shared leadership – collaboration rather than a competition to prove one group or the other as better, more effective, or with the best ideas.

3. Access to Professional Development and Career Growth: Many young leaders participating in the YNPN Conference expressed significant frustration over their lack of access to basic professional development. If we hope to retain these young leaders, individual organizations and managers need to invest in the Gen X and Millennial leaders of the sector by helping them develop in their careers. As social entrepreneurs and traditional corporations integrate the ideas of a mission-based business, working for a nonprofit is no longer the only way to make a difference in society. We are saying a firm farewell to the days when young people could be expected to take a professionally and financially unrewarding job for the sake of impacting a particular mission. Consequently, the nonprofits that recruit and retain top young leaders will be those that put a high priority on professional development. In Denver, programs like YNPN Denver’s learning circles and Community Shares’ Executive Leadership Institute groups offer very affordable professional development for younger nonprofit employees. Even if your organization cannot pay for these types of activities, meet your employees halfway and provide paid time to pursue professional development and other opportunities for career growth.

Also, for a variety of factors nonprofit professionals are retiring later than they used to. Consequently, some young professionals find that senior leadership opportunities are not available – opportunities which would have once been vacated through retirement. This phenomenon occurs in the corporate sector as well: publications like Bloomberg Businessweek call it the “grey ceiling”. What are individual nonprofits doing to provide career growth opportunities for Gen Xers and Millennials, especially when senior leadership positions are still occupied by skilled, experienced and healthy Boomers and Silent Generation leaders?

4. Challenging Misperceptions around Generational Tendencies: During the intergenerational conversations about what younger staff can bring to an organization, the discussion nearly always turns to technology. Both young leaders and their colleagues need to challenge the misperception that the most important skill that young professionals bring to an organization is the ability to use social media proficiently. While tech savvy is a tremendous asset, young professionals and leaders bring so much more than their Facebook networks, and are eager for opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in these other areas as well. Are we thinking about generational ‘personalities’ as a starting point for actual workplace relationships, or are we pigeonholing each other into stereotypes? Not all Millennials are tuned into pop culture, for example, just as not all Boomers love committees.

5. Hunger for New Approaches to Solving Persistent Problems: Power dynamics between funders and nonprofits. The challenges of the nonprofit board governance model. Interest in social enterprise and the burgeoning L3C movement. Enthusiasm and interest in collaborative leadership models. What do all these thoughts and trends have in common? The participants in the YNPN and EPIP conferences have new, interesting ideas about how to address some of the persistent challenges and new opportunities associated with nonprofit work and the sector as a whole. Giving young leaders some room to try new ideas and engage in calculated risk now will pay off in helping build sustainability and increased effectiveness for the sector over time.

What are your thoughts on these five themes? Did we miss something? Ask us questions or comment on our blog below!

RESOURCES Want to read more about these topics, the happenings of these three conferences, or learn more about resources for young leaders? Check out these links:

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