This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the BoardSource Leadership Forum in Washington, DC, on October 9 &10. We hope you will be joining us.
Nearly every day, I continue to be amazed to read about the struggles of nonprofits and their boards, and so many just throwing up their hands in defeat. I’m reminded of the quote from the great hockey player Wayne Gretzky who, when asked what the secret to his success was, said: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” I worry about nonprofits just trying to find the puck, much less working to be prepared for where the puck is going.
Anticipating tomorrow — constituent and stakeholder needs, shifts in funding streams, board composition, and on and on — is critical for leadership today. The nonprofit sector has been undergoing tremendous change in recent years, from the downturn in the economy to the beginning of the generational shift of organizational leadership. And we will all have to learn to adapt to the new normal that has resulted in society, our communities, and our daily lives.
While 2008’s economic collapse caught us by surprise, we have known for a long time that the 77 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are nearing the traditional retirement age. We are entering a period of both transition and opportunity for Baby Boomers and the 100-plus million Generation Xers and Gen Yers born during or after 1965 that follow. Note that only 14 percent of board members are under the age of 40.
Many of us recognize the significance of this transition but are challenged about how to address the impact and opportunities of this change. More and more, the most effective organizations are realizing that to navigate this change successfully, they must recruit and retain the best leaders (both staff and board), value unique talents, and include diverse voices. We must develop the skills and networks of leaders to not only help expand and improve the nonprofit talent pool but also help provide professional and personal development for leaders in general.
I worry that the tales of woe and frightening stories that we read on a daily basis will scare off future talent from the nonprofit sector. Despite, or maybe because of, these worse-case scenarios, there has never been a better time to engage in the vital work that nonprofits are doing in communities. This truly is the great opportunity of our day, though it will not be without its challenges. When we work together on innovative forms of engagement and new ways of doing business, however, everyone benefits.
Ultimately, regardless of age, race, or wealth, all individuals need to feel and know that they can make a difference to the nonprofit organizations and people they serve. Organizations are like an oyster — without friction, an oyster cannot produce a pearl. New leaders on boards and staffs and as volunteers can be just what a nonprofit needs — that tiny speck of friction — to form a beautiful pearl — the pearls of active citizens, effective institutions, and vibrant communities.
David Styers’s BLF session is titled “Redesigning Your Board Members into Board Leaders.”