April 27, 2010

The End of the 'Next Generation'

A few years ago, the nonprofit world started paying a lot of attention to the looming nonprofit leadership "crisis."

Reports like Daring to Lead looked at the "gap" that's feared to occur when baby boomer CEO's begin leaving their jobs in droves, while Ready to Lead? focused on supporting the "next generation" of young nonprofit leaders who would be needed to take their place. Yet once we realized that baby boomers were not, in fact, retiring in great numbers, books like Working Across Generations began to expand the conversation to help us think about how all generations can lead side by side in organizations.

But something about all the research bugged me. As a young leader, I didn't like how the "next generation" moniker implied that we have to wait for some undetermined time before we can lead. And until then, we have to sit quietly with the other kids and try to catch the crumbs of wisdom and power that fall from the big kid's table. If that's what we meant by saying next-generation leaders, I sure didn't want to be one.

So, earlier this year, I began using the term "now generation leaders" because the reality is that young nonprofit leaders who are typically referenced as the next generation are not as young as people think. We're not all college kids anymore.

This year the oldest of Generation Y will be 30 years old. We're no longer the "baby" in the workplace; we're managers and directors and CEO's of great organizations.

Then a funny thing happened this weekend in Denver. In an inspirational set of speeches during the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) national conference, two baby-boomer philanthropy executives urged young leaders to think of ourselves in a completely different way. They told us to stop calling ourselves next-generation leaders.

First, Council on Foundations President Steve Gunderson opened the Saturday morning plenary with a strong suggestion for young grant makers.

"EPIP needs to change their tagline from the next generation of grant makers to the now generation of grant makers," he said. "The future is now."

Then on Sunday, Gara LaMarche, President of Atlantic Philanthropies, offered this sentiment after being asked to give advice for emerging leaders:

"I don't look at it that way. I was running things when I was 24. It's only in the philanthropic sector that we think you have to be older to lead."

In addition, Mr. LaMarche dismissed the word "emerging."

"It's a misconception," he said. "Young people are already where they need to be, and older people are emerging in every stage of their lives."

With these two endorsements by respected leaders in philanthropy, I'm hoping that the nonprofit world will do away with the term next generation as it relates to younger leaders.

Although we will certainly be the ones leading tomorrow, we're also the ones who are already leading today.