Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

CEO Transitions

Futurists observe what’s happening today, then they study the events that led to now, and finally with some accuracy they predict what will happen in the future. So using that logic, it’s is easy to see that many nonprofit leaders are nearing retirement age. (Today) The nonprofit sector has grown tremendously as a result of the baby boom generation’s creation of institutions to build stronger communities. (What led to now) During the next 10-15 years it is assumed that while some boomers will stay in their jobs as long as possible, others will change careers, try something new, but most will just want to let go, play with grandkids, or take a long needed break. The data: 82 million in the boomer generation with only 44 million in Gen X. This fact will challenge every industry to secure the right people in key jobs until the millennial generation comes of age to relieve the void.

The overwhelming evidence is that many of the organizations created over the past 40 years will disappear as the baby boomers retire. (What is likely to happen in the future)

In 2006, a report in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by Tom Tierny of Bridgespan stated, “One of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits today is their dearth of strong leaders – a problem that’s only going to get worse as the sector expands and baby boom executives retire.” We’ve called what we expect to happen the “crash of the herd.” That prediction included recruiting board members as well as qualified candidates for all senior executive positions – CEO, CFO, development director. Today we know it to be true.

This month’s newsletter is not focused on the scarcity of qualified individuals. It addresses how boards can become better prepared for these transitions. While there will be scarcity of people, the attitudes of people serving on boards could aggravate this situation. But unlike the facts on scarcity that must be accepted as they are, attitudes can be addressed and improved with information – in the end, such insight could minimize the negative impact.

Is it possible that some in the baby boom generation fear that when they let go the world will come to an end?

It is not the first generation to fear the worst about succeeding generations. For example:

  • “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?” – Plato (5th Century BC)
  • “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” – Socrates (5th Century BC)
  • “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.” – Hesiod (8th Century BC)
  • “The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.” – Peter the Hermit (11th Century AD)

The fact is, there are many great young leaders in our sector. While the parting generation may consciously or unconsciously have angst over the transition, the young have hope. Boomers as a group are so reluctant to let go that too many of the next generation’s leaders have been ready to take over for years but not given the chance. Personally, I am optimistic about the next generations’ capacity to take over, and eager to see it happen.

While the sector’s next generation is ready to lead, the people they must convince to give them a chance will continue to serve on boards for a decade to come. Some directors may seek someone that looks and acts more like their former, older executive.

There are examples of boards that have put their trust in the next generations – and they are glad they did. Almost 17 years ago Cook Inlet Tribal Council selected Gloria O’Neill as their CEO. They trusted her to lead their organization before she was even 30 years old! Under her leadership, the organization has grown into one of the largest, most respected nonprofits in Alaska.

The Alaska Community Foundation chose Candace Winkler, the Alaska Humanities Forum trusted Nina Kempell, and the Anchorage Concert Association recruited Jason Hodges – all outstanding leaders. There are many more young leaders just as competent. I suggest that these stellar examples of the talent that awaits should give even the most skeptical boomer more faith.

Another way to prepare for this transition is to learn more about generational dynamics. Peter Brinckerhoff, a keynote speaker at Foraker’s first leadership summit in 2008, wrote a book Generations, the Challenge of a Lifetime for Your Nonprofit. He outlined how emerging attitudes about work-life balance along with many other shifts in the values of younger generations in relation to those of their parents would transform society, especially our sector. Brinckerhoff was optimistic about these inevitable changes. He urged the generations to learn more about each other in order to prepare for what will come. He said without that curiosity we might misread each other’s intentions.

Members of the Foraker boards heard that message and took it to heart. Steve Marshall, former CEO of BP Alaska, and current chair of the Foraker Governance Board, had recently accepted responsibility within BP Worldwide to help its leadership prepare for these opportunities. He along with other members of the board were so energized and optimistic about the capacity of the sector’s next generations that Foraker created a committee to study ways to support the transition.

They connected to the Institute of the North and their dynamic young leader Nils Andreassen had who identified and supported Alaska’s “emerging leaders” network. The committee held conversations with many young sector leaders to learn about their concerns and aspirations. The Foraker Group and Rasmuson Foundation sponsored young leaders to attend national events like the Independent Sector’s national conference where their program for emerging leaders, called NGen, was gaining momentum.

Most important, the Catalyst for Nonprofit Excellence Initiative was created at Foraker. That program recruited some of the most significant young and seasoned leaders in Alaska to explore their own capacity as leaders and encourage them to build a strong statewide network of sector leaders. To date, 45 individuals have taken advantage of this program.

In addition, the most recent effort involved the board convening young leaders to encourage them to develop a vision of the sustainable Alaska they want to live in.

As life expectancies increase, society will need to adjust long-held roles of the elder and younger generations. We may need to re-think how vibrant elders with the energy to stay engaged open the door wider for the well-equipped younger generations to become the leaders they have the capacity to achieve. In order for this transition to occur, the young may need to become more assertive, and the elders may need to back away and encourage transition. For sure, there should be more discussion on how to enable successful transitions.

Brinckerhoff’s book had many useful insights for this process, including definitions of the three dominant generations in today’s workforce:

  • Boomer Generation” – born 1946-62. Thumbnail: size, 82 million. When working with this generation, emphasize: their value to the team, your need for them, their ability to improve your services, that your workplace is young and “cool.” Publicly recognize them whenever possible. Tell them that they can help “change the world” by working with you.
  • “Generation X” – born 1963-1980. Thumbnail: size, 44 million. When working with this generation, emphasize: their value to the work of the organization, the value of independent thinking, that your organization focuses on work-life balance.
  • “Millennials” – born 1981-2002. Thumbnail: size, 73 million. When working with this generation, emphasize: the good that they and their peers can do by working with you, the challenge of doing good in the community and doing it well, the need for their new perspective and ideas.

One of Brinckerhoff’s most effective ways to define the primary difference between boomers and the next generations was:

Boomers: “Live to Work!”


GenX and Millennials: “Work to Live!”

He offered these steps to help the nonprofit sector prepare for the transition:

  • Talk openly about succession – board and staff leadership transitions.
  • Develop a transition plan for all key leaders.
    • Contingency for unexpected transitions
    • Budget for transitions
  • Endorse and support term limits for board members and officers.
    • This varies by community (size) and a need for long-term tradition, but
    • You need new faces on the board regularly to provide objective new strategies
    • Consider this an opportunity to match skill-set needs for board members
  • When you think diversity and skill-set, add age and generational perspective into the mix.
  • If you are breaking a generational barrier, recruit more than one board member at a time of the same generation. You need to diversify your volunteers more by generations. Most organizations need to age down. To do this:
    • Ramp up your web site
    • Make your volunteering and volunteer management more professional
    • Adapt your volunteer plans to suit millennials.
      • Millennials believe the opinions of their peers.
      • People in this age group want their time used efficiently.

Now it is time to start the conversation in your organization. Please share your thoughts to assist others on this journey. And we encourage all leaders to look into our Catalyst for Nonprofit Excellence program. We are accepting applications for the next cohort that begins in the fall. Space is limited. Check our website and let us know if you have any questions about the program.