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Not-For-Profit Organizations by Generation: Changing of the Guard

Not-For-Profit Organizations by Generation: Changing of the Guard

A Major Generational Shift is Coming to Not-For-Profit Organizations

It would be difficult to argue that Canada's sector for not-for-profits organizations and associations isn't top-down packed with baby boomers and Generation X executives 1. They have spent years in their respective fields gaining the sort of expertise and practical experience that makes them ideal for leading positions in so many associations. However, as with any strong generational presence across a sector, this has both its good and bad consequences.


The Benefits of an Aging Sector …

On the upside, the combined years of experience now found in leadership roles in so many not-for-profit organizations should bolster confidence in these executives' capabilities. This "Old Guard" has proven they know what they are doing, within their employment and the associations of which they are members. They have survived in their field and respective organizations by proving they know what they are doing.

Obviously, an association benefits from a wealth of experience guiding it. It is easier to sidestep obstacles and address challenges when it is more likely the decision makers have already encountered similar circumstances during their tenure. "Don't make the same mistakes I did," is an invaluable sort of wisdom long-serving association executives can pass along to others.

There is also the benefit of established networking -- spend enough time in a role, and you get to know the right sort of people. Having years of opportunity to begin and foster relationships across one's industry is helpful in many ways. Not only do such relationships likely encourage ties of loyalty between long-serving peers, but they establish a list of time-proven people to head-hunt into available positions.


… And the Need for a New Guard

Although there is certainly value in the "been there, done that" aspect of running an association, there are some negative consequences, too. No one can accuse the association sector of moving too quickly or acting on a whim, for example. Being top-heavy with an aging demographic has resulted in many organizations being too slow to adopt new technologies, operational philosophies, membership strategies, and the like due to an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality.

When the inevitable time arrives for a younger generation of association executives to step up and take control, it seems likely not-for-profits will suffer from a problem common in the corporate world: executives who do not know when to move aside. No one likes to feel like their time in their role has passed them by, but it happens. This is especially relevant in organizations subject to constantly changing trends, a need to adapt to new technology or the like. For such an association to stay at the top of its game, decision makers cannot afford to be out of touch.

Arguably, few things illustrate the need for an infusion of young blood into the association sector like the rise of social media. These days, not-for-profits absolutely must have a social media presence if they want to reach their target audiences. Not utilizing social media (period, let alone effectively) is undeniably turning one's back on the quickest growing communications market in the world. If your organization's decision makers are not on social media, how can they claim to have their audience's pulse?

Millennials have grown up with social media as part of their lives. It is something they have taken for granted whereas baby boomers and Generation X have needed to adopt this technology and adjust accordingly. Even hiring a skilled social media expert won't entirely make up for the vulnerability in the decision making and strategy processes created by the decision makers themselves being unfamiliar with the medium. Of course, social media is not the only area where the "New guard" proves their value.

Many industries from which associations executives are drawn rely upon cutting edge technology and fresh mindsets to survive and thrive. Not only is ease of use and adoption required in organizations that utilize new technology as an inherent part of their operations, but so too is the way of thinking that comes with growing up with such technology as part of one's life.

Adjusting to technological shifts is arguably one of the most severe changes one can make in a profession. Consider how difficult a time previous generations had to adjust as personal computers became more common in the home and office. Today, association executives from pre-millennial generations can find it difficult to change how they work with technology and the new processes and policies that go along with it.

Millennials and the generation to follow are necessary to bring not-for-profit organizations into the post-digital world because they will be the ones shaping it in all other respects.


Why the Past Remains Important

Acknowledging the need to begin onboarding suitable young professionals now so they can be groomed to take over is necessary. However, this need does not mean pushing the Old Guard aside and forgetting them. The sector's aging members can make the inevitable succession easier and more productive by passing along their wisdom and experience during a period of transition. By doing so, the baby boomers and Generation X'ers contribute to the continued health of the organizations they have helped build and develop while minimizing common "newbie" mistakes. Even a well-ordered succession will not be without its difficulties, however.

Unlike businesses where such transitions are also occurring but are funded as a common aspect of employee turnover, not-for-profit organizations rely on volunteers. As such, there is no pay to be found in training or mentoring the New Guard. As with most aspects of running not-for-profit organizations, this means the older generations must be willing and enthusiastic to play their role in the succession process. A big part of this begins with associations acknowledging the value the Old Guard brought to their positions and responsibilities. This sort of respect lets senior association executives know they are leaving the organization in good hands -- hands that won't forget the past because they are too focused on the future.

To this end, associations should consider how they acknowledge retiring members who have done a lot for their organization. A cake, card, and cup of coffee likely isn't sufficient. Does your association have an awards and honours program in place that recognizes essential contributions? A gesture such as this ties the member's achievements to the association in an official way that becomes a part of their legacy once they are gone. Knowing they have been paid that sort of respect can go much further than a simple gift when it comes to asking volunteers to actively partake in a succession strategy.


The Inevitable is Always Around the Corner

Regardless of how not-for-profit organizations choose to show their respect and awareness of what previous generations have done for them, there is no escaping the fact that seniority awaits us all. People leave associations because they retire, to change career paths to something more appropriate to their changing lifestyle (e.g., all the kids have moved out and have families of their own), or because time has evolved the nature of their role beyond their capabilities. Whatever the reason, not-for-profit organizations must be prepared for such changes.

If you want to minimize the impact of time's inevitable demands on your association, be proactive with the opportunities you provide. Look at your criteria for open positions and see where you can bend a bit regarding required experience. Find ways to accommodate young professionals looking to get started in your industry who may not yet have the ideal level of practical experience you hope for.

Creating opportunities for young professionals to join not-for-profit organizations and benefit from the mentorship of previous generations is essential before all those years of experience leave. So, what is your association doing to ensure the wisdom its Old Guard has accumulated is going to be passed on to the next generation rather than lost? What is your succession plan?



by Jack Shand, CMC, CAE, and Strategic Planning for Associations and Not-For-Profit Organizations by Ron Knowles, FCMC and Helen Hayward, CMC. If your association finds itself needing to prepare for a changing of the guard, both books are highly suggested as helpful resources.





1. CSAE Canadian Association Census



Associations, F10s, Young Professionals, Boards, Staff, Leadership, Team Building




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