What’s Next? Baby Boom Leaders in Social Change Nonprofits

With its enormous size, the baby boom generation has and continues to make an important impact on U.S. society and history. Like many others, nonprofit sector leaders have begun to pay attention to the aging of this large cohort, who began turning sixty this year. Researchers and other observers have raised concerns about a looming leadership “crisis,” noting the number of organizations headed by baby-boom age directors. This has led to rising concern about nonprofit executive transitions and new leadership development. 

In this paper, we report on how twenty-seven social change nonprofit leaders in the baby boom generation view their work and the contributions they have made during the past 30 years. The leaders we talked with come from diverse backgrounds and are involved in a wide range of issues. All have helped to build strong nonprofit organizations that have made major contributions to social change. Our goal was first to hear what these leaders thought of the future of their work, their organizations, and their own lives. We also wanted to listen to their perspectives about the future of nonprofit sector leadership.

Several key issues emerged in our interviews and small group discussions. Baby boom-generation leaders were extremely proud of what their generation had accomplished through the various social movements of the 1960s and ’70s—including the Civil Rights, anti-war, and women’s movements and various identity-based mobilizations. They were less enthusiastic about their work in the ’80s and ’90s when, in the face of government cutbacks and the rise of the conservative right, they turned to creating and working in nonprofit organizations. There, they made long-term commitments to social change work and built institutions anchored in communities. Despite their lack of management experience, these leaders learned on the job how to grow and sustain complex, effective organizations. Ironically, the more successful they were in building their organizations, the more they had to work to keep pace with the growing demands from the community and the increasing need to identify sources of funding. 

As these baby boom-generation leaders edge towards traditional retirement age, they have several reasons to be anxious about their own future and the future of their agencies. On a personal level, they worry about whether they have the financial means to retire. Some talked about being tired of their role as organizational leader. They said they are interested in trying something new, but unclear about their options and worried about making enough income to sustain themselves and dependent family members.

Older leaders agreed that in order to remain vital and to contribute to progressive social change, they need to communicate with and engage younger leaders. At the same time, they have mixed feelings about the next generation. They are impressed by younger leaders’ capacity, but unsure of their long-term commitment to the work. When it came to transitioning leadership, many older leaders admit that they did not know how to transfer the skills and experience they had gained during the past three decades to new leadership.

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