The Future of Nonprofit Leadership: Onboarding and the Next Generation
Today’s most forward-thinking nonprofits understand that the ability to tap into the enthusiasm and energies of a committed pool of executives can mean the difference between success and failure. Properly applied, the leadership provided by such executives can pay dividends in a number of different ways, from facilitating development opportunities to formulating strategy, and from refining objectivities to clarifying goals. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how a nonprofit might truly succeed in the absence of committed executive leadership.
Yet it appears that current demographic trends promise to make the inconceivable the new norm. While today’s future executives are no less committed to the philanthropic ideal than the current crop of executives engaged in philanthropic efforts, their commitment leans toward the subjective importance of "doing good" and away from the hard science of leadership. Stated another way, they are more inclined toward the carpentry of philanthropy and less interested in the architecture. Consequently, the qualities and attributes that make these young executives a rich source of potential value are not fully realized.
How might a nonprofit avoid this outcome? What steps should a nonprofit take in order to maximize the potential of the future executive? Is this new norm a foregone conclusion, or does another avenue exist? In order to answer these questions, it is important to understand today’s future executive and how a nonprofit might assist this group in realizing its potential.
Today’s Future Executive
Like many other changes, the demographic shift in executive philanthropy marks the transition from Baby Boomers to Generations X and Y and Millennials. Raised in the wake of American ascendancy following World War II and coming of age at a time when American interests dictated global trends, the Boomers learned leadership through necessity. As American influence found itself exported outside the U.S., Boomers found themselves figuratively and literally charged with the responsibility of advancing that influence. The Boomers dictated changes in culture and commerce, secure in the promise of tomorrow’s affluence. These changes extended into the philanthropic realm, as the Boomers worked to establish and grow philanthropic institutions in order to address the pressing needs of modern American society.
Generations X and Y and Millennials have faced a less certain challenge—a challenge in some ways more arduous. In contrast to the affluence experienced by the Boomers, these generations have come of age during a period where economic prospects are far less secure. Consequently, these generations ascribe to a philosophy focused more on today’s contribution and less on tomorrow’s growth. They believe that setting and identifying tomorrow’s goals and objectives—the very essence of the architecture of leadership—are less important considerations than securing today, and their focus tends toward the preservation of the established rather than growth and innovation, a paradox given that these same generations have been responsible for the great technological revolution of the last 20 years.
Corporate Philanthropy and Today’s Nonprofit
In years past, philanthropy was generally considered the byproduct of private-sector corporate success, an afterthought of the corporate decision-maker. Today, however, the best corporate philanthropy tends to align itself with the corporation’s business strategy in ways that pay dividends for the company and its stakeholders, including its investors, customers, communities and the philanthropic concern itself. Moreover, by tapping into its unique portfolio of assets (e.g., physical and intellectual property, physical space, distribution networks, subject and process expertise, etc.), a company can help address charitable concerns in ways that are considerably more valuable than simply writing a check.
One of the key resources available to philanthropic entities via the private-sector corporate concern is the time, effort and energy of Millennials, the future private-sector executives. At a time when Millennials are under increasing pressure to demonstrate their continuing ability to add value to the modern corporate concern, the opportunity to marry their desire to make the world a better place with the strategic designs of their employers, in an environment where they can and will be called to lead, is a natural fit. In fact, this kind of responsibility can be a springboard for the future executive, providing the opportunity to demonstrate his or her capacity to make decisions and exercise judgment to superiors. In turn, the philanthropic concern reaps the benefits of the future executive’s passion and prowess.
Preparing the Next Generation for Philanthropic Leadership
Members of this rising generation are eager to roll up their sleeves, and nonprofits can take advantage of their energy, creativity and work ethic by broadening their engagement. Whereas in the past, a nonprofit may have asked a prominent family foundation member to serve on its board just to receive an annual contribution or gain social clout, today it finds ways for the member to deeply understand the organization’s mission and to participate meaningfully in achieving it. That includes cultivating young donors through various means, inviting them to exclusive galas, and demonstrating a commitment to young board members’ philanthropic and personal development. Millennials welcome this type of engagement, and want to know that their unique skill-sets and expertise can help the organization achieve its goals more effectively.
Matching the needs and desires of the next generation with those of nonprofits will ensure the sustainability and impact of these organizations and philanthropists for generations to come, but it will take some careful planning—and solid advice. Seasoned philanthropists can help guide the next generation by:
- Providing mentorship. Many corporate boards have developed orientation programs for new board members that often include assigning mentors who can support, coach and offer insights on effective board governance, leadership and best practices. Organizations in the philanthropic sector can offer the same sort of guidance for Millennials interested in nonprofit board opportunities, assigning seasoned philanthropists to mentor them. Mentors can provide insights into effective board service and teach Millennials the core skills required to excel. Seasoned philanthropists can also point their charges to valuable resources in the field.
- Exposing them to new challenges. Learning occurs when we are exposed to new challenges, new methods of problem-solving, or new activities that take us out of our comfort zone and force us to create solutions and make decisions. Unfortunately, we often rely on those “who have done it before” as we bid and execute engagements. Philanthropic concerns must learn to create a place on our teams for Millennials to be part of something new. Besides considering the more basic (yet essential) questions about time, talent and treasure, this kind of opportunity can offer members of the rising generation the chance to reflect on how they can harness their curiosity, momentum and commitment to a cause as a force for good.
- Encouraging curiosity. Millennials have a natural desire to ask "why," and we need to encourage them to do so. When they do, use that opening to communicate and educate. When we choose a solution framework or debate how to staff or kick-off a project, we need to make a concerted effort to explain how we assessed the options and the process we used to make the decision. When we only hand out a decision and do not provide information on how the decision was made, we miss a great opportunity to engage these future leaders and help develop their decision-making toolkits.
- Harnessing the intelligent use of technology. The advent of social media and mobile technologies has created a true double-edged sword: constant contact, but the potential loss of the personal touch that is critical for our business. I was recently in a cab with two younger consultants who elected to text back and forth to each other instead of simply conversing, notwithstanding the fact that they were sitting beside each other. We should embrace new ways of networking, crowdsourcing and communications, but at the same time we need to promote the proven advantages of developing personal relationships and the trust that comes with them. To ensure our teams do not go heads down and stay there, consider techniques like having them write hardcopy thank-you notes to clients and fellow staff, or put a ban on texting during meetings.
- Tapping into the natural affinity to "save the world." From my experience, Millennials have an amazing propensity to do good, serve as change agents and focus on positive improvement. We need to harness this energy and optimism and provide opportunities for them to contribute. I believe it is possible to do well and do good—that we can be commercially successful while delivering positive improvements for our clients and our communities. Ask your next generation executives about their passions and the type of service that inspires them (you may be surprised, in a good way), and then work with them to connect it to organizational goals and objectives.
- Being a cheerleader. One of the more overlooked opportunities for nonprofits is their ability to be a cheerleader for the future executive. Private-sector corporate concerns often view the charitable causes to which they contribute as a customer of sorts. Needless to say, a report submitted by a happy customer has the capacity to inspire confidence in the future executive’s superiors, and can lead to additional opportunities for that future executive. The charitable concern should remember to credit the work and efforts of the future executive.
In sum, we have a responsibility to grow our replacements—our clients are going to be relying on them to continue the work we have spent decades trying to perfect. If we focus on developing these individuals—providing resources and opportunities combined with mentorship and direction—we will leave our organizations in good hands.
The responsibility is ours. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be."