The Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy conference kicked off by exploring what the meeting of three different generations in the workplace means for nonprofits and the future of social change. Robby Rodriguez co-author of Working Across Generations-Defining the Future of Nonprofit, started with a powerful reading from the book about transitioning from a intern at the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP)–an organization dedicated to fighting racial inequality–to taking the control of the organization at the age 28 in 1999.

Robby faced a great deal of pressure: not only carrying the legacy of the organization’s founders and impact on the community but also dealing with age divide in the organization. Most of the staff was under 30, while the board was over 50; everyone was forced to take on different roles, adjust to new leadership, and re-examine motivations for being involved in with the organization.

The crisis he faced embodies the challenges facing nonprofits today as different generations meet in the workplace.

Several studies in 2006 and 2007 stated that 47%-68% of executive directors, many of whom are baby boomers, planned to leave within the next five years, prompting a series of conversations on who was going to take the lead. However, we realized that executive directors were not leaving; instead, we have generations working together. It’s crucial that we understand the needs and motivations of each generation.

Baby Boomers:

  • Proud of their generation, started many of the organizations we work at because they believed that change was possible.
  • Went from “Mission to Management” started with passion then went to having to manage organizations.
  • They learned a lot by doing, which doesn’t necessarily make them the best teachers.
  • Anxious about the future: Many cant afford to retire. Additionally, they may want to leave a job, but not their cause.

Generation X:

  • Come in with values of wanting to make change but develop skills, in particular more formal education.
  • Caught in Catch-22: They have more education than experience so people doubt their ability to work well. Yet more education is encouraged to be good leaders.
  • Create own organizations, yet not interested in being EDs. Work/Life balance is key, especially among men.


  • Tech natives, first generation to grow with technology. Yet get branded as tech person of the org (pigeonholed).
  • Most diverse-race, sexuality, religion—and most accepting of diversity. Reflection of how country is changing and the kinds of workplaces millenials want to work in.
  • Delaying going into workforce because of recession and advanced schooling.

Along race: 23% People of Color are interested in becoming executive directors, compared to 19% Whites. However this isn’t reflective of opportunities presented to people of color–only 17% of executive directors are people of color.

When these generations meet, what challenges arise and how can we address them?

  • Examine our pipeline: Work to get young people ready to be leaders, yet be sure to challenge our definition of leadership and the entire notion of a pipeline. Pipeline implies that you have to wait to lead, which delays potential for change.
  • Create room at the top: Baby boomers aren’t leaving as quickly as we thought. How can we share power instead of simply trying to shift hands? And how can we free up positions at organizations, while keeping boomers involved?
  • Change the job description: Not many people want to be an executive director because of the amount of pressure. We need to provide support and rethink the role; the current model is unrealistic and unsustainable.
  • Provide recognition: younger and older leaders may not look and act the same yet both deserve to be recognized for their talents. We should focus on being a “leaderfull” organization where everyone is encouraged to lead.
  • Another organization is possible: We don’t need to keep business as usual. Let’s look at different models of leading and working together.

Essentially, before we even begin to plan for new leadership, we need to open the discussion; examine assumptions about change and leadership; offer trust; acknowledge gifts within our organization; and talk about the future in terms of mission, impact, and succession planning.

The challenge is bigger than creating nice places to work. Having divisions in our organizations limit our ability to address pressing issues and our discussions of leadership force us to re-examine our view of philanthropy. The world is a mess—racism, war, global warming, the problems are endless. We are all responsible for fixing this. As a result, philanthropy MUST BE social justice oriented. Robby eloquently stated that social justice rests at “the nexus of democracy, power, and love. “ The future will be different—it has to be.

To continue this conversation, EPIP, with Cynthia Gibson of Cynthesis Consulting is launching the Generational Change Initiative to examine these trends and how we can change our definition of philanthropy, work, and social justice to best match the new dynamic in the workplace.

Can’t come to the conference?  Check out the livestream or follow the conversation on twitter.  Make sure to visit Rosetta Thurman and  Trista Harris for their insights.