Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Coping with the New Normal? An Opinion

When the 2008 recession began there was much uncertainty about the future. Jim Caldarola, former Chief Development Officer for the Archdiocese of Anchorage and Foraker Operations Board member, encouraged us to “embrace the new normal.” He was referring to his conversation with national colleagues about how the old assumptions on running a nonprofit were no longer valid. In other words, most of us knew at some level that nonprofits had to transform their business models to survive. Since then, the sector’s equilibrium remains off-kilter. As soon as we think we understand what to do, our reality shifts.

The futurist Bob Johanson, Senior Fellow at the Institute of the Future, describes the sense of unease from this uncertainty as the “VUCA World” – volatile, unexpected, chaotic, ambiguous. He suggests that we have been in the VUCA World since the late 1990’s and can expect it to continue until 2025. The cause is a lag in our ability to adapt to the ever changing, advanced technology that allows for faster and faster communication and that continues to shrink the world. We have access to more information than ever, but have less time to assimilate what we learn. The world feels out of control.

Humans strive for the predictable – the normal – the expected. Change creates stress. So if we accept that it may be a while before our world is more predictable, we must develop new behavior and embrace change in new healthier ways in order to minimize stress.

Last month we presented our latest report on the impact of the nonprofit sector on Alaska’s economy. The data suggests that the sector is quickly adapting to the “new normal.” After completing a previous study in 2010 and reviewing the data, we predicted this “new normal” and suggested it would be represented by these factors:

  • Less funding from the government
  • The demand for more individual charitable support
  • The quest to secure more program fees (earned revenue)
  • Challenges in recruiting and maintaining the right people on boards
  • Longer search processes for key professional staff like CEOs, development directors, and CFOs
  • The need for ongoing scenario budgeting to better prepare for unexpected funding shifts
  • More dissolutions (nonprofits going out of business)
  • Restructuring of the sector

While we are encouraged that many have risen to the challenge, the data is clear that now is not the time for complacency. As soon as we think we have a handle on things, the “new normal” demands change.

What are we to do? How do we adapt? We need more debate to answer these questions. And, with certainty, we will need every person engaged in the discussions to develop workable responses to our ever-changing reality. But there may be another issue that affects our ability to react as quickly as is required.

As we enter the “new normal,” the largest generation – the Baby Boomers – has reached or is quickly reaching retirement age. By 2025, when Johanson predicts the end of the VUCA World (and hopefully the realization of a new equilibrium), we will face another coincidental event: all but the youngest, or the die-hard Boomers will be retired; the older wave of Generation X will enter senior status; and the first of the Millennial Generation will reach middle age. Maybe it will take the full emergence of the X-ers and Millennials and the presence of the succeeding generation – now under 16 years of age and so far un-named – to finally make sense out of the volatile, unpredictable, chaotic, and ambiguous world we know today.

Recently I was with a competent 42-year-old nonprofit professional who asked me, in all seriousness, “When can I be emerged, not emerging?” She was not the only Gen X-er that I have heard ask that question. While she and many of her contemporaries are competent, they feel stifled by the not-so-gentle reminders, primarily from my fellow Baby Boomers, about their constant state of emerging. Is it time for the elder generations to allow the “emerging” generations to emerge and lead this change?

When I was 42, I had been a CEO for six years. My elders made me feel I was worthy of being “emerged” and capable of leading. Unfortunately, many leaders in Generation X do not sense that same level of encouragement today. While no generation should be considered obsolete since we progress through life at our own pace, as a generation, Boomers may need to accept their status as elders sooner than they might wish.

Professionals that work with senior populations have noticed that retired Boomers are not joining senior centers. Many speculate that the newest seniors are reluctant to accept that status. For sure, through better health care and an emphasis on staying fit, many Boomers are “younger” than people of the same age in previous generations. But are Boomers still capable of the mental flexibility required as leaders for today’s rapidly changing realities?

Two years ago the Foraker Governance Board held a special retreat on the future of Alaska and its nonprofit sector. A consensus was reached that Alaska should develop a vision for its future, but it was also concluded that this was not likely to happen until the next generations, the X-ers and Millennials, made it a priority. What kind of state do the next generations want? What will drive our state’s economy with the eventual decline of oil production? What are the priorities of the next generations of Alaskans?

The consensus at the board retreat was that the current dominant generations, Boomers and Silent, may not take the required risks and may prefer to maintain the status quo in order to protect what they have. They could be reluctant to make the hard choices required to adapt to the new realities.

Alaska history has many examples of how it took the initiative of the younger generations to lead big change. While elders were involved in the statehood movement, the most visible leaders were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was led by people in their 20s and 30s. Today’s challenges will require that same level of commitment from new leaders who have the energy and vision to take risks and address the VUCA world. After all, they have the most to gain or lose through action.

Some have suggested that as we age, we become more conservative in ideology. But for most, it manifests as an increased reluctance to take risks, especially on health or financial issues. Of course there are exceptions. We can easily identify seniors that become more radical with age. But increased caution is the norm for the majority and their caution may make it hard for them to take the risks needed to adapt in today’s world.

Many cultures hold a revered place for elders. In cultures that honor and engage elders, age is not the only indicator of that status – it requires evidence of the wisdom that comes from years of experience. Elders are not typically in the paid leadership positions, yet they are where enlightened leaders go for wisdom. Leadership requires vision – elder status requires wisdom.

Members of the Boomer and Silent generations still in leadership should reflect and honestly determine if they continue to think five-to-ten years into the future and if they still have the energy to lead change. If the answer is “yes,” then of course they should keep on “truckin”- so to speak.

But if the answer is “not really,” or especially if the concept of maintaining status quo seems the preferred path, then it may be time for those leaders to use their wisdom and take the first step toward the transition to elder status.

In the beginning of the last century, life expectancy was in the 60s, now it’s the 80s, and in 20 years it will be the 90s. Even when we have less energy and vision, we can and should be active participants in society. It is time for the generation that re-defined stages throughout their lives to use that asset to develop a modern role for elders. Of course, that means that they must accept getting older.

Finally, as best as I can remember, the use of the term “emerging leader” to define the next generations began about 15 years ago. I bet the origin was from someone in the Boomer generation. The longer Boomers kept the next generations emerging, the longer they didn’t have to move to their next role and accept senior status.

Maybe over the next 15 years those emerging generations will give us old guys a break and call us “emerging elders,” so we can keep fooling ourselves for a few more years about growing old!