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Generational change in Non Profit organisations

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

The generational handover of the nonprofit sector — one organisation at a time — is well underway. Take a look around any conference and you’ll see it! An important but dangerously unnoticed difference between baby boomers and the Next generation is that they are strikingly different in “what they don’t know they don’t know.”

In a nutshell: baby boomers came from activist backgrounds (“I’m a child care activist”) and their organisations grew out of movements. They not only didn’t know how to manage, they first had to discover the concept and then why they should learn about it (“HR: what’s that?”).

In contrast, today’s younger managers are completely familiar with management. They know management.

But what don’t younger leaders know? They don’t how to build movements, to get 100 people to a rally, to make staff or an audience feel called to a cause greater than themselves. They don’t know they don’t know how to build movements, or why they should.

In a speech, Buck Parker of Earthjustice hit the nail on the head (paraphrased): We protect the earth by bringing lawsuits to make government enforce existing laws. But what we didn’t realize is that all these years we have been standing on the shoulders of the environmental movement.

He continued: And that movement is declining. We can’t do our work anymore without working to build that movement. It probably means our metrics will go down because some of our resources will be going to build that movement rather than to win our own cases. But we need that movement the way a tree needs soil. We can’t just benefit from the environmental movement, we have to be a part of it and we have to feed it.

All our organisations stand on the shoulders of movements. If your organisation helps children with disabilities, you are standing on the shoulders of this movement. If your organisation does health education, you are standing on the shoulders of the patients’ care movement.  If your organisation provides Christian education to children, you are standing on the shoulders of the Christian education parental choice movement.

Different assistance is needed for the next generation. Foundations and the capacity-building sector have tooled up for the management needs of baby boomers by fielding programs on HR, on accounting, on strategic planning.  But they are typically failing to see the movement-building leadership needs of the next generation. Some leadership programs are addressing this, but too often they focus on management skills (again) and personal attributes (again).

So ask yourself: what movements provide the soil and nutrients for our organisation? What are we doing to build and strengthen those movements?

Adapted from a Blue Avocado article by Jan Masaoka

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