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Next Generation Leadership Succession

Let's take a look at the methodologies and barriers to transitioning the leadership of our community's nonprofit organizations to the next generation. 

Let's take a look at the methodologies and barriers to transitioning the leadership of our community's nonprofit organizations to the next generation.

Every organization claims it as a priority, but in actual practice, few have succeeded. While seeing initial spurts of participation from younger members in committees, boards, and programs, most organizations will eventually see these early gains dissipate over five to 10 years. Other groups find themselves watching a revolving door of younger members coming and going, but never having the critical mass necessary to truly say that their organization's governance has shifted to the next generation.

The Japanese American Generation Gap

Before diving into methodology, we first need to recognize the demographics of our community's high-level volunteers. As we survey our boards, committees, and staff members, in a majority of cases, we find two generational age groups: baby boomers and millennials.

Those are not sequential. From Figure 1 above, you'll notice that there is a generation between them: Generation X. With notable exceptions, that generation generally makes up a lower ratio of our community's leadership. Without any data-driven hypotheses, we can only conjecture as to the reason for this lower ratio, and regardless, that's not the point of this section. The point here is that there is a generational gap in our community-based organizations' leadership, a gap not just in age but in diametric values.

A fact of life: over time, values change. When I was a young boy, I "accidentally" cursed at my friend's next-door neighbor and got my mouth washed out with soap later that evening. When I "forgot" to show my parents the D+ I had gotten on my 3rd-grade science test, I got the spanking of a lifetime (I can say "lifetime" because I clearly still recall the pain and never got a D+ again following that day). But we don't do those punishments anymore. Parental and societal values change, and so do the values of the kids who receive them.

Keep this in the back of your head. We'll circle back to this in a bit.

The Next Generation Model

Ask yourself this question. Does the makeup of your board, committees, and staff reflect your target population? If you intend to build programs, events, and activities for younger audiences, is that younger audience sitting around your board table? The Next Generation Model is built around this central question.

As Figure 2 depicts, age-diversity ensures the relevancy of programs intended to attract the next generation. Who better to align the goals of a program than a person from your intended audience? On a deeper level, age-diversity enables an organization to align long-term strategic goals with societal trends and ensures that policy decisions evolve to match current times.

Let's move to the other side of Figure 2 as our age-diverse leadership plans and executes relevant programming to attract new participants, donors, and volunteers. Those become the recruitment base for future leadership.

Seemingly simple, and just as promised, a 2-minute read. Now for the hard part.

Authentic Transfer of Authority

The authentic implementation of the Next Generation Model has two core requirements. First is an awareness and negotiated middle path between the two opposing generational perceptions around trust. Second is an honest and vulnerable conversation with one's ego and an acknowledgment that true generational transfer means an individual relinquishing of authority.

Let's go back to our examples at the top of the article. Why is it that some organizations are able to build a strong initial following, only to lose that same audience over the next 10 years gradually?

There's a lack of authentic trust. Let's look at some examples: nameless, but based on real-world groups. Organizations will create young adult committees or young professional groups. At first, the idea catches traction, core committee members bring in new ideas and friends, and programming seems to flourish. But the road ends here, and thus, the journey ends too. In the many case studies I've witnessed, the organization did not provide upward leadership mobility beyond the young adult group. Instead, the young adult group was a means to sequester next-generation leadership to a kid's table. Without authentic trust given, and without real decision-making authority beyond the type of music to play at the young adult happy hour, the millennial will look to fulfill that intrinsic value in other places.

Let's look at another typical example that we see with boards: youth board positions. Organizations will commonly designate specific seats to be filled by leaders under a certain age. When assessing the remaining composition of the board, often the rest of the leadership will be well above the age of the youth board member. Again, lack of authentic trust. These boards have checked the box of "youth leadership" while still maintaining a monolithic super-majority for organizational decision-making. Until that board can acknowledge that leadership transition means a relinquishing of positions, and ultimately power, they will remain in the same place.

That's not to say that young adult groups and youth board seats never work; again, the key theme here is authentic trust. So long as veteran board, committee, and staff members are willing to transfer authority through positions and decision-making power, the Next Generation Model works.

I'll close with a parting note of gratitude and insight. For those leaders who have spent a lifetime building and sustaining our community's most critical organizations, the transfer of power can be challenging. As one hands over their life's work without strings attached, they also hand out a piece of their identity. But consider the term Okagesama De - "because of you." It is because of your life that a new generation has become inspired and engaged. It is because of your work that new leaders seek to carry it into the future. The next generation is here… because of you.

That piece of your identity that you hand over becomes your legacy; it becomes an element of the driving force that perpetuates the continuation of our organizations and the evolution of our community.

Okagesama De.

*This is an abbreviated synopsis of a more extensive workshop for nonprofit leadership. If your board is interested in exploring this topic through workshop, contact me, and let's see what we can do.

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November 2020
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