The Third Sector Report By Jeffrey Wilcox

Nonprofits: Are The Baby Boomers Holding On Too Tightly?Jeffrey Wilcox - The Third Sector Report

February 26th, 2013 – The mere mention of recruiting boardmembers for a nonprofit organization guarantees a lively conversation. For some, the pursuit of the perfect trustee has become as sporting as hunting wild game.

Just ask any nonprofit leader about the subject and most will agree that finding the right person for board nomination with the right income, connections, skills and demographics is an increasingly endangered species.

One would think there are slim pickings. After all, there are an estimated two million empty seats in the board rooms of nonprofit organizations across the country right now. And, sadly, that number has held constant for the past four years.

Many explanations have surfaced as potential reasons for such scarcity: Lack of time, competing priorities, or misconceptions about board responsibilities are but a few examples. The subject has generated substantial online discussion among nonprofit leaders across the country.

My sense is that there is not a shortage of people who want to serve their communities. There is, however, a shortage of people who fit the demographic profile of what the current generation of boardmembers is looking for in their peers.

If you think I’m wrong, just ask people under 40 about their experiences with nonprofit boards.

According to BoardSource, 14 percent of the boardmembers of nonprofit organizations in the United States are currently under the age of 40. What that says is the vast majority of the current generation of board members are having a hard time imagining these individuals as their “peers.” And, their behaviors are showing it.

The Baby Boomer generation, to which I’m a card-carrying member, has grown up with and held on to our parent’s notion of an “adult's table” and a “kid’s table.” This generational paradigm, alone, has placed more prerequisites and requirements to sit at the “adult’s table” for a nonprofit organization than any previous generation.

The body language of many Baby Boomers is anything but inconspicuous when the subject of recruiting trustees significantly younger than the median age of the current board is discussed. The topics of board succession and term limits have also been known to elicit the same signs of heart burn.

The Baby Boomer grip on the nonprofit industry is a firm one. In fact, it has all the potential to become a paralyzing one.

When we were under 40, most of us were social activists, environmentalists and artistic expressionists that astounded our parents. We would eventually create more nonprofits than any other generation before us. Yet, we’ve managed to create more demographic barriers to board eligibility that few generations other than our own have achieved, and we’ve branded the nonprofit experiences for younger generations as akin to the church youth group.

It’s no wonder the bulk of young social entrepreneurs are considering, or have chosen to establish, their own “B Corporations” as a more gratifying alternative to the nonprofit sector.

Making the Baby Boomer grip even tighter is the fact that some nonprofit board rooms are becoming an oasis for Boomers who are struggling with their own aging issues. For them, board positions afford a sense of power, respect and validation that is otherwise eroding or missing from their lives.

Opinion polls continually reveal that nonprofit executives desperately desire boards that work as a team, are on fire for the cause, operate as a learning environment, unleash an entrepreneurial drive to generate sustainable revenues, and are not afraid to take risks to change the world. Yet, the current generation boards aren’t achieving particularly high marks in any of these five areas.

Younger boardmembers push the organization and its people to contribute to society in the direction that society is going. Not where it’s been.

The first step to Baby Boomer’s loosening their grip is to stop talking about current and potential boardmembers in terms of “young” and “old.” Setting up that dichotomy, alone, shows our age. It also embarrassingly overlooks the fact that intergenerational boards of directors was something Baby Boomers loudly advocated for as being in the best interest of the community when we were under 40.

The bottom line difference between our generation and the ones behind us: We wanted to sit at the “adult’s table” in community organizations. The next generations haven’t been convinced that it’s worth waiting for.

(Jeffrey R. Wilcox, CFRE, is president and chief executive officer of The Third Sector Company, Inc. Join in on the conversation about this article on Facebook or drop us a line at jwilcox@thirdsectorcompany.com)