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When we manage the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors in these crisis-centered times, the focus often is “of the moment.” Keeping up with what is directly in front of us can be all-consuming. However, as difficult as it is to step off the typical daily treadmill, if our sector is ever to advance beyond the crisis du jour, its future also needs our immediate attention.

Where is the next leadership cohort coming from? What are we doing to advance the next generation of those who will teach our future workers, heal our illnesses, entertain and uplift us, support our natural areas, and care for the people who fall through the holes in our frequently overburdened social services safety-net?

As the baby boom generation currently in leadership positions across these sectors begins to retire, the need to identify and equip future leaders becomes critical. Pathfinder Solutions, Inc., a Colorado-based organizations, which specializes in providing research to foundations, has estimated that as many as 70 to 80 percent of nonprofit senior leadership may exit the sector in the next decade, resulting in the national need for 640,000 new leaders.

Although the 2008 economic recession slowed the executive exodus when individuals deferred their retirements, the large number of those approaching retirement age combined with the significant role nonprofits play as employers in Southeastern Pennsylvania strongly indicates the need for a proactive approach to preparing for the inevitable vacancies.

Are we, as a sector, ready? Are we doing all that we can do to not only identify but also to equip future leaders with the tools so essential to success in the fast-changing world in which we operate?

I think not.

The nonprofit/philanthropic sector is diverse both as to mission/purpose and to size. It ranges from the very small grassroots, neighborhood organizations all the way up to major universities and hospitals. While it might seem that such diversity would create many options and opportunities for those who wish to develop leadership skills, that diversity instead is cited by some observers as the reason why there is no established career path for the next generation of leaders to follow.

The nonprofit sector encompasses too much, that line of thinking goes, to provide a universal track of progression for key management positions. Many of those who come to the sector initially stumble upon their roles, it is argued, and they are driven more by passion for a particular cause than by a commitment to or an understanding of the field as a sector unto itself.

Recently the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) held its annual conference here in Philadelphia. This is an organization that intentionally attracts young professionals in the philanthropic sector who want to learn what others like them have experienced and find guidance and mentoring for their own career journeys.

Something EPIP does quite effectively is provide hands-on opportunities for these young professionals to hone their own management skills by developing their own agendas, structuring presentations and applying the lessons learned from the feedback they receive.

Do we provide such opportunities within our own organizations? Do we intentionally look at new hires as future leaders? Do we identify opportunities through which these hires can grow and develop a broad set of skills that will allow them to advance?

When I entered the nonprofit sector several years ago, I assumed the career path would include going to a larger institution, but there was no identifiable way to get there. It appeared as if each organization was a silo unto itself and that advancement depended upon someone above you retiring or on your ability to uncover upcoming openings outside of your organization through networking.

Even today, I still hear about someone who is seeking to advance by moving to another organization, only to be told that their particular experience does not qualify them for the role. Our sector seems to typecast individuals early on as a “youth organizations manager” or an “arts leader” rather than seeing that each shares a skill set.

While certainly each nonprofit field has its particular area of expertise, such functions as fund-raising, personnel management, and nonprofit business acumen, to name a few, apply across the board and are, in fact, a highly portable toolkit. Rather than being insular in our thinking and limiting candidates for executive management to the usual suspects in any specific field, the sector might be better served by embracing those out-of-the-box approaches a non-traditional management candidate might bring.

We must become more focused on providing a clearer path for advancement for our nonprofit leaders that transcends these self-imposed barriers. We must come to agreement on the necessary skills and provide a progression of opportunities for young professionals through which they can learn and apply the common proficiencies.

The alternative is a lack of intentionality that will hurt our field by discouraging the next generation.

We are fortunate that young people continue to want to join the nonprofit and philanthropic world with the passion and drive to make a difference. We must provide them with the tools to ensure that their drive and passion can be effectively channeled to advance the important work that is being done by the many varied organizations that define our regional quality of life.

We’re all in a long-distance race. The challenges our nonprofits address and the solutions they apply are not those of the quick fix. We need to ensure that when the current team is ready to pass the baton, the next set of runners is fit and in condition to take up their leg of the race.

R. Andrew Swinney is President of The Philadelphia Foundation.

My plane landed at 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday. I was starting a new adventure in a foreign land, which is not so atypical from my recent vacations, but this trip was not a retreat. I was in Santiago, Chile to complete a five-week volunteer business advisory project for an emerging market entrepreneur in the academic software sector as an Ernst & Young Corporate Responsibility (CR) Fellow. This was going to be one of the biggest challenges I faced in my career to date. Not only was I helping a dynamic business achieve its goals for growth, I was adapting to a different culture, learning the nuances to doing business in an emerging market and finding ways to engage and energize a diverse management team. 

Helping an aspiring entrepreneurial company achieve its potential

Within my first week as a CR Fellow, I could already see the growing pains that the entrepreneur faced trying to transform the start-up business into a multinational software company. Through strategy sessions with the top executives and intense interviews with key stakeholders in each operating unit, the entrepreneur and I developed a set of adaptable and sustainable performance metrics to measure the success of the business as it progressed. I also facilitated the company’s first leadership training and strategy meeting for all company executives, which produced some great introspective analysis on leadership and helped strengthen relationships within the team.  

For the past 6 years, the CR Fellows Program has sent high-performing managers from the US and Canada to assist entrepreneurs in emerging markets. The entrepreneurs are identified by Endeavor, an international nonprofit organization, as high-impact business opportunities with the potential to create substantial customer value, jobs and economic activity. I was fortunate that Endeavor also provided continual support to me while I was in Chile and helped my entrepreneur build ties to the business network in Santiago. This opened my eyes to the important role that for-profit and nonprofit teaming can play in strengthening a cross-sector volunteer program and thereby contributing to the community.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, business leaders discussed the pivotal role that entrepreneurs and young, innovative thinkers will play in fostering economic progress in the years to come. This made me think about my own career: What skills will I need to make a contribution in the global economy? How can I continue to support entrepreneurs and innovative youth? What will I be able to do to make an impact and foster innovation?  

I realized that my growth as a professional and as a leader is best fostered not just at my day-job for work, but through the volunteer opportunities and service to the community available to me at Ernst & Young. The firm encourages me to develop in many ways, such as classroom training, stretch assignments, on-the-job coaching, and through the organization’s broad commitment to corporate responsibility. Ernst & Young has enabled me to participate in a number of skills-based volunteering efforts that have given me enormous opportunities to stretch and grow, and to give back in meaningful ways. These volunteer opportunities, where I have committed a piece of myself and my career, continue to strongly shape my professional development the most.

Inspiring Students to Pursue a College Education

I come from a family of educators who consistently stressed the importance of education and the role it plays in a fulfilling life. And I work for a Big Four accounting firm, so it’s not surprising that I have a passion for mathematics education. As a mathematics major in college, I tutored high school students. When I started my career at Ernst & Young in 2004, I missed that role. Fortunately, the firm made it easy for me to connect with local students and to make an even greater impact because I was teaming with other Ernst & Young colleagues. I’ve been active in two volunteer programs that target under-served youth: the Cyberchase volunteer program (when I was working in New York) and the College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence) program here in Philadelphia.

The Cyberchase program is an after-school math class for elementary-age students, with a particular focus on girls and minorities. In conjunction with the popular PBS TV show of the same name, Cyberchase shows students that math is fun and all around us. Elementary school is a critical time when students decide they are either “good” or “bad” at math, and this program helps to move students over that hump to realize that math is not a foreign language. In 2008, I took over the project manager role for Cyberchase in an effort to not only build the volunteer program, but also to demonstrate my management skills and ability to progress to the next level within the firm. The program allowed me to do just that; I managed a 6-week program and a group of 25 volunteers to motivate more than 30 students in mathematics. This is an impact and accomplishment I would not have been able to achieve on my own without the corporate volunteer programs available to me.

When I relocated to Philadelphia in October 2009, I naturally wanted to get involved in the local community. Ernst & Young had just launched a pilot College MAP program at Frankford High School in North Philadelphia in collaboration with College for Every Student (CFES), a national nonprofit that helps underserved public school students take steps toward college. (Similar College MAP programs are in place in 10 other US cities). Here in Philadelphia, that meant that a dedicated group of mentors and even more dedicated group of Frankford juniors were brought together to “map” a plan for applying to and attending college. I decided to join this pilot program after my transfer from New York in order to expand my internal network and to inspire these students to follow through with their goals. MAP helped me realize the importance of building relationships, both with regard to strategic nonprofit and for-profit teaming (Ernst & Young and CFES), as well as the strong contacts that I made with executives within my own organization by having the opportunity to connect outside of our typical work environment. Over the last 2 years with the students, we have seen their enthusiasm toward higher education grow and then come to fruition in college acceptance letters. The energy has been contagious. 

Skills-based Volunteering Enriches Careers

There are countless volunteer options available for anyone interested enough to look, but I’m thrilled that through the CR Fellows program, Cyberchase and College MAP, I’ve found ways to make a difference that tap into my professional experience at Ernst & Young. By taking advantage of such opportunities, I continue to strive toward my true potential as a business professional, building leadership, management and organizational skills that are unique to each challenge that arises. I am proud that I’ve been able to make a more substantial contribution than I ever expected, because I’m providing much more than a pair of hands.  

As more organizations team with nonprofit organizations to offer community engagement opportunities for their employees, we are seeing an increase in the number of people who are volunteering and the value they are bringing to those they touch. I’ve become a strong advocate for skills-based and career-building projects and strategic teaming between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. When corporations challenge their traditional avenues of corporate responsibility and create innovative approaches to supporting the community and developing their employees, they foster value that is beyond measure.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP.

As baby boomers begin to retire, leaving many leadership positions vacant, there have been discussions taking place across the country regarding succession planning and leadership development. Philadelphia has been very active in conducting such discussions and often includes the role of diversity in succession planning and leadership development conversations. Groups that have held intergenerational focus groups include, but are not limited to, Independent Sector American Express NGen Fellows and the National Urban Fellows. Conversations around succession planning are pertinent for nonprofit, public and private sector entities; however, the following article focuses on succession planning and leadership development in the nonprofit.

In March, the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal, in partnership with the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Independent Sector American Express NGen Fellows and convening at the Independence Foundation in Philadelphia, conducted a small intergenerational focus group on succession planning in the Philadelphia region nonprofit sector.

The group invited key leaders, including Millenials (7), Generation X (11) and baby boomers (5), in the community to help them learn more about personal experiences, organizational history and the uniqueness of success planning in the nonprofit sector. Participants’ professional affiliations included universities (3), trade association (1), both large and small nonprofits (18) and the public sector (1). The group was assembled as part of a larger effort conducted nationally by the Independent Sector, which convenes coalitions of nonprofit, charitable and philanthropic leaders “to advance the common good” domestically and internationally. To achieve this, focus group discussions are being conducted in a few other select cities around the country to be shared at the Independent Sector national conference in Chicago in the fall.

The following is a compilation of the feedback participants shared in three areas of questioning: personal experience, organizational issues and overall sector issues. The focus group was facilitated by two Independent Sector NGen Fellows, Jethro Miller, Vice President, National Campaign, American Red Cross and Tine Hansen-Turton, Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal Co-founder and Vice President for Health Care Access and Policy, Public Health Management Corporation.\

Key Ideas: Attendees’ Personal Experience with Succession Planning

  • Mentoring is necessary.
  • Younger leaders should not just look to the top of an organization for mentorship opportunities.
  • People need others to support their personal growth and they may not find that person only within their workplace but in friends, family or other organizations.
  • With mentorship and support, the mentee is more inclined to be successful and contribute the overall success of a nonprofit.
  • A mentoring relationship can be as valuable for the mentor as the mentee.

Attendees were passionate about working in the nonprofit sector. Several of the Generation X participants pointed out they had begun their careers in the private sector, but, finding the work unfulfilling, and, following some soul searching, identified their passions and pursued work in the nonprofit sector. Several attendees said they were able to stay at their first job in the nonprofit sector out of college or graduate school due to their organizations expanding, enabling growth opportunities. They also found that many of the nonprofit leaders mentored younger/new employees. Several younger attendees had worked in the same nonprofit organization for more than 5 years and talked about promotions coming as “slow burst of opportunities.”

The group spent a lot of time talking about the role of mentors. Many expressed how important mentors can be to both personal and professional growth. Reflecting on her career, one older participant commented on “how important just a little bit of mentoring can be.” Another said, “I’ve always had a mentor.” While some participants spoke of supervisors who had been mentors, mentoring/professional support did not always come from the “likely” sources and many view their friends as key. The notion raised was similar to President Truman’s “kitchen cabinet” – those who can be your peers and trusted friends and colleagues are the ones to give you “honest feedback.” One baby boomer attendee described mentoring as a two-way street, saying “the mentor needs the mentee as much as the mentee needs the mentor.” One of the baby boomer CEOs has mentored many younger leaders and said she always surrounds herself with smart people. While she may give a lot to a younger mentee, she learns a lot from the mentee, which makes it attractive to her. Attendees talked about a lot of burnout in the nonprofit sector because all management and leadership staff are given many tasks/responsibilities without guidance, leadership and support, and many focus group members expressed that mentors can help alleviate the burnout.

Some participants said that a mentor who supports a person’s professional growth is a true mentor. This can take many forms at various times in one’s career, from teaching writing style/organization, to helping a person realize they need to step back from a program/project, to pushing a person to take on tasks they would not normally have the confidence to perform.

Finally, several Millennials expressed that they wanted mentors but didn’t know where to turn or how to go about getting them while the baby boomers naturally found mentors.

Key Ideas: Attendees’ Experience with Organizational Succession Issues

  • Organizations need to understand their current and future goals/mission and look for people within who share the same values, passion and culture, and groom the next leaders based on those traits as opposed to whether they have mastered their current job tasks.
  • Foundations can do a lot to support succession planning and leadership training, e.g., through fellowships and funding opportunities to learn leadership skills.
  • There is a close tie between board development work and succession planning that is not often understood by nonprofits (either board members or staff leaders).

Succession planning was identified as a major area of concern/issue for many nonprofits, as these organizations are not grooming the younger generation for leadership. A funder in the room gave an example of how she had pulled founding leaders of the nonprofit sector together to discuss long-term succession planning, and the answer from sector CEOs was, “we don’t have an issue with succession planning.” As a result, the foundation set up a fellowship program for the sector that supported young staff in the organizations along with leadership guidance from the nonprofit sector. Today many of those fellows are now younger leaders and CEOs of organizations in the public interest law sector.

Several Generation X leaders said that formal systems set in place at nonprofits to have succession planning have not been very effective, often because they focus only on succession planning for the top leadership of the organization; mentoring is preferred. One participant commented that his organization is growing so fast that they do strategic planning instead of succession planning because succession planning assumes that the world will stay the same.

Everyone agreed that “Founders syndrome” is real, but a way to overcome it is to surround yourself and your organization with people who are intelligent, trustworthy and competent. Founders can be passionate; however, the challenge comes when the founder’s passion turns into control and micro-management. Also, some leaders have trouble trusting others, letting go of control and delegate responsibilities.

Participants also discussed how organizational politics play a role in succession planning and can hinder needed transparency. In the for-profit sector, succession planning is an integral part of standard operating procedure. In the nonprofit sector, on the other hand, succession planning is not part of the culture, so when some nonprofits begin to discuss succession planning, boards of directors, which may include private sector representatives, grow uncomfortable. They have been used to one leader and one leadership style and, when it comes time to change leadership, boards are challenged by the transition.

One Generation X attendee said that boards must know the type of person, values, passion and culture necessary for an organization; it is not just about skills. Related to the previous point of boards being uncomfortable with leadership change, several of the baby boomers expressed a concern that if boards do not recognize the values, passion and culture of the organization and hire future leaders based only on their skill set, some of these future leaders could be short-lived or even be detrimental to a nonprofit because the fit was not right from the get-go.

Key Ideas: Attendees’ Experience with Nonprofit Sector Issues

  • It’s not just about the organization’s mission – collaboration, strategic business thinking and an understanding of all programs are necessary.
  • Transparency within an organization is vital to successful succession planning.

Attendees described that the nonprofit sector overall lacks people with business skills and strategic business thinking. Often smaller nonprofits, in particular, are singularly focused on their mission, leaving less focus on organizational development. This is in stark comparison to some large nonprofits, where overall institutional mission may become diluted if staff members do not fully understand or know what each department/component does and how their individual efforts contribute to global achievement, which can create a secretive or unnecessarily competitive environment that is not conducive to organizational growth and succession planning.

Final Reflections and Next Steps

All attendees agreed that intergenerational conversations were helpful and needed to occur more often, not just in focus groups. The economy was a big concern for all, especially as it relates to succession planning, and everyone agreed it is hampering progress in the area of succession planning. For some Generation X and Y representatives, whether job advancement was available or even desired was a good topic to discuss with the baby boomers. Baby boomers were able to share some experiences and lessons learned about advancement and/or changing jobs.

Some of the next steps attendees desired were formal mechanisms in Philadelphia to enable continuation of these intergenerational discussions, where younger employees in the nonprofit sector have access to mentors, and an open dialogue about the need for board training to recognize the requisite skill set of the appropriate leader, as well as the culture, passion and values of the nonprofit they help lead.

The Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal wants to continue our focus discussion group with our readers. Below is a set of questions; we hope you’ll respond to these via blogs and emails to us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  • Millenials: Have you found it easy to find mentors? If so, where have you found mentors?
  • Nonprofit leaders: What would you like to see foundations do to support succession planning?
  • Millenials and GenX: Is there enough transparency and trust in your organization that you feel you could lead your organization if asked?
  • Nonprofit board members: What skills/trainings are needed to be good board members?

Early in my career, I specialized in corporate CEO succession planning as a consultant with the Hay Group. We would begin the process by determining where an organization stood in its life cycle—emerging, maintaining or harvesting—as each stage requires a different type of leader with different skills and abilities. Once we knew the current phase of the organization’s life cycle, we could create a model for the right type of leader to address the challenges of that phase. We assessed members of the senior management team to identify the internal candidate best suited to address those challenges. If no one matched the profile, we looked for outside candidates who did. That’s what you do when you have an organization with deep pockets.

This article, however, is aimed at nonprofit organizations, whose depth typically lies more in their commitment to their mission than in their bank accounts. In this case, succession planning is a delicate dance between the board of directors and the CEO. The board has the duty of loyalty and the duty of care and, as the stewards of the mission, their loyalty is to the organization, not the person leading it. This means that they need to ensure that there is a strategic plan in place to guide the mission and operations. Additionally, the infrastructure must support the mission. The CEO’s role is to drive the achievement of the mission within the constraints of the budget. If the CEO is not performing, the board is obligated to convey that message. If, following an opportunity to improve on past deficiencies, the CEO’s performance remains sub-standard, the board may be forced to terminate the CEO. The CEO should have clear goals to achieve and should be reviewed annually against these goals. Failure to meet these goals should activate corrective action and may trigger the succession plan. This situation rarely happens slowly, so the board should be watching closely enough to see it coming.

A smart CEO will take the lead in succession planning, so that the related conversations are open, optimistic and mission-related. A smart CEO will be focused on legacy and taking steps to advance the institution. The CEO should have a vision for his or her contribution to the organization, and should share that vision. The aspect of the vision that relates to succession can be shared with the entire board when there is agreement and knowledge of when the CEO will leave. Recently, the Please Touch Museum and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society boards were very effective at handling the succession of their extraordinary CEOs, Nancy Kolb and Jane Pepper, respectively. The former chose an internal successor and the latter chose an outside candidate. Both organizations had successful CEO transitions because their staff and board leaders were strong and exhibited foresight in collaborating on appropriate succession.

When the CEO has no specific plans to leave and is performing well, the succession plan can be in the form of a documented discussion with the Board Chairman or the Executive Committee. This should contain at least 3 components:

  1. List of key accountabilities of the job as well as key elements of success: What does this CEO actually do day-to-day? What must happen in order to achieve the mission? What are the key “fit factors” necessary for success in the position (e.g., willing to form lateral partnerships, driven by achievement rather than power, possesses the required knowledge, connections, and the most effective leadership style (meaning collaborative, directive, inspiring)?
  2. List of potential successors (internal or external): list names and positions of people who could be considered for the job.
  3. Vision statement: a one-page statement of the organization’s values and beliefs. What phrases describe the organization’s brand identity? What does the organization stand for? What kinds of clients will it serve? What difference does it make? How is it unique?

If led proactively by the CEO, this can be a powerful and productive conversation. Getting out ahead of the board gives them the opportunity to reflect on the CEO’s vision and discuss the future in a rational, collaborative, and positive tone. If the CEO prefers not to initiate the succession planning discussion but is performing well, the Board Chair or Executive Committee are well-advised  to ask them to think it over and then talk it through in a documented conversation.

In the case of a resistant and/or non-performing CEO, the Board and the Governance/Nominating Chairs need to drive a process that provides an institutional safety-net and interim plan in case the CEO departs quickly, either voluntarily or involuntarily, drawing on the 3 steps described above. 

One of the sticky subjects in succession is the noise around the concept of GenXers wanting Boomer leaders to retire. Philadelphia Magazine’s March 2011 cover story, Just Die Already, fanned the flames of this notion that younger leaders would like Boomers to step aside and turn over the reins. That’s not going to happen for several reasons: 1) Boomers in leadership positions are generally very good at what they do; 2) no one stepped aside for them; and 3) most nonprofits give no pensions, so they can’t afford to retire. While their friends are buying second homes in warm climates, they’re wondering whether retirement will ever be a realistic option.

With that said, nonprofits wanting to ease transition from the current generation of leaders to the next should consider ways to provide more support to enable high-performing CEOs to afford retirement. In the meantime, these CEOs can spend more time cultivating the young rising stars, who tend to bring new and growth-oriented ideas to the organization. CEOs can identify fast-track performers and give them creative high-visibility assignments and the opportunity to connect with peers in other nonprofits around town. In return, these future CEOs have much to teach their more senior colleagues about social networking and serving GenX and Millenial clients. Everyone wins if the CEO and potential successors spend more time getting to know one another in a mutual mentorship that is productive for the long term health of the organization itself.

Lastly, while advance succession planning is theoretically the right thing to do, in some cases, a short-term interim operating plan may be the best you can do. While there may be others out there like Jane Golden, of the Mural Arts Program, Meryl Levitz, of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation or Paul Levy, of the Center City District, entrepreneurial CEOs like these icons are so extraordinary and rare that it may be best to simply wait until they decide to leave and only then address their succession head on. Armed with a vision and interim operating plan, a board can huddle to determine who’s up next “just in time,” as they do in manufacturing. In this economy, where terrific people are available and willing to accept a nonprofit salary, and there is a treasure trove of talent coming up through the ranks, there’s no shortage of CEO replacements. The GenXers will get their well-deserved turn.

In an ideal world, the CEO and board can agree on the right time to rotate, the succession plan will outline the business challenges facing the successor, and internal and external candidates will be identified and measured against a model of the kind of person best suited to achieve the next phase of the organization’s mission.

The bottom line is that succession planning need not be dramatic, sinister or cumbersome. Objective, structured and documented conversations between the CEO and Board Chair or Executive Committee can create a transparent, positive transition when everyone involved remembers that this is all about achieving the mission.

Over the past several years a favorite topic of many books, articles and even webinars has become the issue of next generation leadership (see, for example, Erickson 2010; Chronicle of Philanthropy 2009; Harvard Business Review 2010). While we speak of the next generation we must remember that the current leaders are mostly Boomers and can and should play a major role in moving the nonprofit and philanthropic sector to its next level. There is a role for conversations about how those who are currently in leadership positions can prepare themselves and their organizations, and make room for the next generation of leadership to ensure the continued growth and professional responsiveness of the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

* * * * *

As a freshman in college I eagerly attended Intro to Psychology class. Having long been interested in the human condition, I was convinced that human relationships were the foundation of a strong and peaceful world. I assumed that as a Psych major I could be a part of the betterment of the planet that would come from a greater understanding and tolerance of human relations.

I came away from that first day crushed. Instead of celebrating the strength of individuals and what they can do to be part of humanity, we were all put into categories with associated characteristics, traits, strengths and weaknesses. The idea of individuals working together was lost.

In many ways the issue of leadership trending for the nonprofit and philanthropic world reminds me of that sunny day when I realized I needed to find another major! The issue of leadership rests not in the perceived strengths or weaknesses of the Gen Y, the Gen X, the Boomers or any other category we put our brothers and sisters into. The issue of leadership transition can be approached by a recognition that the current leaders, many of who may indeed be Boomers, but not exclusively, will play a critical and important role.
Many Boomers currently in leadership roles remember well the often surprising and unusual path that led them to their current leadership position—a happy accident, in some cases. Our professional careers may have begun with a passion—to save the planet, achieve civil rights, protest a war, address the problems of the homeless or issues related to poverty, to name just a few. In recent years we are also finding Boomers returning to their values and passions and entering the nonprofit sector, as the economic downturn has caused many to re-evaluate their professional career path and to perhaps revisit their values and commitment to their professional development. As we categorize, theorize, write about and discuss this next gen of leadership, these new Boomers should also be considered.

Current leaders now find ourselves in a world of emerging voices, complete with nonprofit management and fundraising certificates, all sorts of advanced degrees and volunteer as well as professional experience that we can bring to our organizations. The challenge current leaders now face is the necessity to prepare our organizations, ourselves and our boards for the future so that the next generation of leaders, no matter what category they may be from, can adapt and build upon the work current leaders have provided.

In this changing world there are three things current leaders must consider to continue to advance the cause that brought them and their organizations to this time and place.

  1. Learn: Evaluate the current state of the organization and your role in it. Are you still the right person for the job; is your board ready for the increasing demands of the community needs that you serve or support; do you really know what the needs are? Have you listened to your constituency, including clients served, staff members who are part of the team—at all levels—and the board who is ultimately responsible for the mission of the organization? Listen and watch for changes that are more than generational, but also demographic. What is your role, and the role of new leaders, in a community and nation where cultural, immigration and racial groups once considered “minorities” are becoming major or even majority stakeholders?

    Now is not the time for business as usual. It is time for you to perhaps put all the cards on the table and consider your organizational effectiveness and continued relevance. This is where listening will be critical.
  2. Lead: In these challenging economic times, recovery is essential, and strong leadership, commitment to mission and collective knowledge of your organization’s values are critical. Current CEO/EDs must be ready to provide the leadership through their boards. Is it a merger with another organization; is it cutting or reorganizing an underproducing program or even making staff changes that will help you get your organization ready for the next few years?

    Consider the issue of technology. How is leadership (or even management) defined in a world where powerful communications technology changes are driving the demand for more grassroots input and involvement with organizations? How are you and your organization getting ready for this?
  3. Get out of the way: Many organizations may have a singular or narrow leadership bench—a strong CEO; a strong but narrow board; board-driven with little strong management. Current staff and the Gen Y, X and new Boomers can bring a technological, fresh perspective as well as the commitment to the mission so critical to the success of any organization, no matter the current structure. What is the best structure for the next phase of growth that the new leadership should be ready for?

    As a leader of a board or a nonprofit/philanthropic organization you must be ready to consider the role you want or need to play inside a new structure, one that may require a new position in order to ensure a smooth transition and to allow the next gen of leadership for the organization to take the organization to its next level of growth.

Whether you are a Gen Y or X in a start–up or a Boomer with 35 years under your belt, if you lead an organization you would do well to take the time to look at whether your organization is ready, whether you are ready and how you can help prepare your organization for the transition of leadership they all say is coming. As young professionals stated in this journal, they wish to be “collaborators, network builders and ambassadors” (Philadelphia Social Innovations Young Professionals Editorial Contributors 2011), but the leadership must let them. Are you ready?


Erickson, T. J. (2010). The Leaders We Need Now. Harvard Business Review 88(5): 62-66.

Chronicle of Philanthropy. (2009, June 16). Grooming the Next Generation of Nonprofit Leaders: An Intergenerational Discussion [live discussion]. Available at

Harvard Business Review. (2010). HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal Young Professionals Editorial Contributors. (2011, January). Creating Generational Win-Wins: A Call for a Cross-Generational

Leadership Needs Assessment in the Social Sector. Available at

Heidi Hartshorn McPherson is the President of the Chester County Fund for Women and Girls and is a Boomer working with her peers on many of these issues. She also serves on the Board of Delaware Valley Grantmakers and is a member of the Women’s Funding Network.