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January 20, 2022
Cross-Generational Solutions to 'Crisis' in Nonprofit Leadership
By Frances Kunreuther

Frances Kunreuther
Frances Kunreuther
A slew of alarming studies on impending leadership transitions in the nonprofit sector predict that anywhere from 50% to 75% of executive directors are planning to leave their jobs in the next several years, but the question remains: are too many executive directors leaving, or are too many staying?

More recent reports from the sector’s younger leaders suggest that older leaders are remaining in their positions and emerging leaders are unable to advance or contribute in significant ways. Organizations then lose the important ideas and skills of newer generations and remain unaware of how to support multigenerational leadership.

Confronting the “Crisis”: Five Scenarios

Baby Boom Leaders are Leaving. The most common scenario about nonprofit leadership is that aging Baby Boomers will soon leave their leadership jobs in droves, creating a vacuum at the top and imperiling nonprofit organizations. The solution is what we call the replacement theory. If leaders are leaving, we need to find new ones to take their place. We then develop a pipeline, where people are prepared through training and support. But a pipeline does not conjure up images of innovation or new ideas; it readies people to fill a spot and contains those waiting for their turn.

No Room at the Top. Another view, especially from newer generations, is not that the Boomers leaving; rather it is that the Boomers aren’t leaving. This generation is living longer, staying healthier, and maintaining interest in both making a difference and making a salary. In this staying on top set-up, Boomers want to continue to be in charge, especially after years of building their organizations, and may need to keep their earning power, especially in the current economic climate. The solution is to find ways that new generations with fresh views and youthful energy can make a meaningful impact on the sector’s organizations and work.

It’s the Position. A different take suggests that the position of executive director as it is currently conceived is no longer viable. What worked for folks 40 years ago will not hold up in new generations. The work has changed, the positions have grown, and the context has shifted. What is needed is to redefine the position to meet 21st century demands.

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until It’s Gone. Another way to look at the issue of leadership change is the recognition problem. Are older leaders and boards blind to a new generation of potential leaders right under their noses? Rather than focus on recruitment, the solution to the recognition problem is to turn inward and scan existing organizations for potential leadership.

Part of the issue for older leaders—whether they are paid staff or boards—is their image of what leadership looks like. This creates barriers, especially for people of color. The Daring to Lead 2006 report found the percentage of executive directors of color has remained at 17% between 2001 and 2006, even among new and younger leaders, while the US population became more diverse.

Another Organizational Form is Possible. When the nonprofit sector experienced its wave of growth in the 1960s and 1970s, new leaders often adopted a kind of modified corporate structure. The lines of authority in their hierarchy resulted in a triangular structure, a common organizational form popular with the business sector at the time. As organizations grew and aged, this model started to become more bureaucratic. It took too long for information to flow up to the director. Staffers found their input unheeded and called for more transparency about the decision-making process. However, to this day, there are few alternatives, and even the smallest organizations adopt this model as they prepare for growth.

What Do We Do Next?

There is no magic bullet that will make generational shifts in leadership seamless. But from these different scenarios, we can understand that many different aspects of the leadership transition are contributing to our anxiety about these changes. There are several steps we can take to approach solutions by working across generations:
  • Take the time to assess what works and what is challenging about the way your organization is currently run and the role of leadership. Think structurally, not personally.

  • Take leadership development seriously in your organization. Think about how to support people who are asked to take on leadership roles and what they need to transition successfully.

  • Take on the issue of power—what it means, what is easy, and what is hard about having power in an organization. Consider ways power can be shared without losing control.

  • Build multi-generational leadership teams—among staff and board members—to make meaningful decisions; acknowledge differences based on age (and other issues if necessary).

  • Ask younger leaders to accompany older leaders to external meetings and be clear about their roles. In some cases they may participate, while in others they may be there to observe and learn. Debrief the meetings afterward.

  • Allow Next Generation leaders to interact with board members. This can mean presenting issues to the board, staffing a board committee, or working one on one on a particular issue or project.
While this is a difficult time, we have an amazing opportunity to look at the leadership required to create better organizations, not only for the benefit of the communities we work in, but for the benefit of those working within nonprofits themselves. And while this is extremely challenging work, it provides the opportunity to use not simply the “wisdom” of the older generation or the “energy” of younger leaders, but rather an intergenerational partnership invigorated by the perspectives and passion of leaders of all ages.

Frances Kunreuther is director of the Building Movement Project and the co-author of Working Across Generations: Defining the Future of Nonprofit Leadership. For more information, visit
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