A New Generation Steps Up to the Task of Leading Non Profits
A New Generation Steps Up to the Task of Leading Non Profitsback

By Michael Davidson

How best to utilize an incredible source of board leaders – young entrepreneurs – was brought to my attention by a Governance Matters panel on New Energy: Intergenerational Boards That Work.

The Resource
Several social trends have converged to provide us with a pool of enthusiastic, creative potential leaders for the non profit sector.  A significant number of young (30-something) professionals are interested in board service. The evidence: 
  • About 300 young executives signed up for information sessions about board membership sponsored by the corporate responsibility department of a financial services company. 
  • Similar programs for young attorneys attracted hundreds. 
  • The NYC United Way Linkages program has consistently filled three 35-member board training classes in each of the past four years. Six classes will be offered this year. In partnership with the Mayor’s Office and under the new brand of BoardServeNYC, United Way plans to train 500 new board members during the next two years.

This upsurge seems related to a number of social factors: 

  • Involvement in community service in high school and college has demonstrated to this generation that personal satisfaction can come from the ability to make social change. By repeatedly engaging in socially responsible activities, they have developed what sociologists refer to as a “role identity” of socially responsible volunteers 1
  • The Internet has provided new ways to mobilize resources.
  • The success of the Obama campaign and, earlier, the Dean campaign, taught this generation that it can make significant social change.
  • GenXers have a horizontal approach to problem-solving; they are comfortable reaching across disciplines and groups to find resources and solutions.
  • In another generational shift, young people seem to be looking for meaning in their lives. 3

Its Benefits

The 30-something generation has already had an impact on non profit governance:
  • By their example, two financial professionals motivated an established board to increase its fundraising efforts. 
  • A CPA developed a vastly improved financial management system for a small, entrepreneurial non profit. 
  • A mergers-and-acquisitions professional developed a business plan that turned the budget of a large organization from a deficit to a surplus. 
  • A mid-level executive organized events to recruit volunteers for a service organization. 
  • A marketing professional played a significant role in re-branding. 
  • Two young non profit professionals led a fairly senior board in replacing an ineffective and potentially damaging executive director. 

The Challenge

Many boards recognize that they need to recruit “younger” board members, but face a significant challenge.
Boards of Directors, like all volunteer social groups, are most comfortable recruiting and incorporating peers.
Incorporating non-peers into social groups is a challenge that our society has faced with mixed success, as attested to by the experiences of immigrants, women, people of color, people of diverse sexual orientation, etc.
Incorporating another generation is equally challenging. As a society, we are very slow to allow the next generation access to leadership.
Incorporating younger professionals as equals presents unique challenges. Older leaders resist allowing equal access to leadership until aspiring leaders have “earned it.” This resistance is compounded by the fact that, as always, the younger generation’s ideas and expectations are based on different experiences, new problem-solving techniques, and unfamiliar methods of communicating.
A recent empirical study of generational differences on boards concluded that the most important differences “concerned attitudes toward technology and the way technology affected the work of the board, the working styles of both board chairs and executives, and interpersonal relationships.”
This difference manifests itself most noticeably in the degree of comfort with virtual as opposed to face-to-face working relationships.2
Meeting the Challenge
Integrating younger board members into an existing “older” board involves both basic board orientation procedures and new attitudes.
Identify the interests of new board members. Do not assume they are only interested in issues related to their professional backgrounds. 
  • Do not look on them as if they were your children or junior associates; they are your peers. Do not compare them, even favorably, with your children.
  • Seek out their ideas and support their innovations. Be willing to risk new approaches to problems.
  • Give them challenging and important responsibilities.
  • When possible, allow them to choose with whom they will work.
  • Provide clear expectations for board members and apply them equally. 
  • Develop ways for board members to interact socially.
  • Stretch your comfort zone and explore new technologies, including virtual meetings. 


  1. Susan Chambré, Christopher Einolf. Is Volunteering Work, Prosocial Behavior, or Leisure? Center for non profit Strategy and Management, Baruch College of the City University of New York
  2. Julia Classen, Melissa Stone. Multi-Generational Governance: Is There Such a Thing? Midwest Center for non profit Leadership, 2009
  3. The Port Huron Statement. The Sixties Project
Guest blogger Michael Davidson is a board coach who has provided board training and retreat facilitation for a wide range of non profit organizations and management support organizations. 347-431-9452,