November 8, 2012

Earlier this year I worked with Putnam Community Investment Consulting on a research initiated dubbed Generating Change when I was E.D. at Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy. At one point, we were trying to develop a graphic image to represent how career pathways look amongst nonprofit talent and leaders.

We called upon the commonly used analogy of the nonprofit leadership “pipeline”. Here’s a picture:

Am I in a Pipeline?

But a few things didn’t sit quite well with me. I had to ask: is the “pipeline” the most useful analogy?

First, pipelines generally transport oil, not people. I will admit it: a pipeline takes an asset from its starting place (at least the place where people drill the oil up from the ground) to the ultimate destination we define for it, where it is transformed into new forms of energy and burned into oblivion. Career pathways similarly deploy talent assets from their youth to be transformed into productive workers that turn their values, intelligence, creativity, sweat and relationships into the life energy of social causes. And, ultimately, at the least, the physical manifestation of that energy is used up.

But nonprofit workers are not oozing liquid that simply goes with the flow. There is much more agency, choice and give-and-take amongst people as we move along our career paths; sometimes we pursue employers, other times they recruit us. We proactively build up experience, and sometimes opportunities appear unexpectedly as a result of preparation — and luck. Most careers do not move from point A to point Z in a straight line with scientific precision like the pipeline.

Career Arches

In fact, rather than a straight line, perhaps the ideal career looks more like an archway. They begin with a slow upward learning curve through education, apprenticeship, and innovation. They curve up and forward into a peak of expertise at the height of productivity, and then gracefully begin to slope down as we slow activity, our knowledge eventually becomes less relevant, and we look toward a post-career life of luxury.

But even the archway image doesn’t do it for me. It occurs to me that there is – or ought to be – a cyclical nature to careers. Rather than a line, a circle.

Career Circles

Those who have grown into executives, experts and elders ought to feel an urge and an urgency to contribute back to the life of that field. Their industry ought to invite and encourage this, and provide platforms for inter-generational learning across institutions and teams (not just from a manager to a direct-report, although that can certainly be great training). And emerging leaders ought to hunger and clamor for access to the wisdom of and relationships with the elders. If elders model this behavior, then those who learn from them will likely pay it forward as well. This is what Robert L. Payton, the elder who ushered me any many of his students into the field, would call serial reciprocity. Leaders who accomplish this turn their arch into a complete circle, leaving a valuable legacy behind them.

Links in a Chain

And if we take a step back from the individual level to a wider lens of the cause, profession or industry, it seems obvious that these career circles inter-connect: Mentors and teachers pass ideas, knowledge, and practices from hand to hand. This ensures that knowledge from the past remains alive in the present and morphs into the future as each generation innovates, adapts and adds new meaning and method to an evolving cannon. In this way, the single circle of a career becomes a series of links in a strong chain that stretches from an illuminated past into an exciting future.

The more institutionalized and structured parts of the nonprofit sector that we rarely think of as nonprofits but indeed are – such as universities and hospitals – have developed some important formalized systems for passing knowledge from one generation to the next. Primarily these are systems of higher education that utilize theoretical education, apprenticeship-based training, codes of ethics and recognized degrees at the front-end, and tenure and emeritus positions at the close of the cycle. The emeritus positions in particular allow elders to be honored, to remain engaged in the life of an institution and the field, and to continue sharing their perspective with young people. But this is resource-intensive and rare.

Despite the massive generational and demographic changes taking place in the nonprofit workforce, and despite the pending crisis in the nonprofit executive corps due to Baby Boomer retirements, the nonprofit sector and its funders have yet to prioritize or prepare for multi-generational learning of any significance or scale.

By the end of the decade in 2020, the nonprofit sector’s Greatest Generation will be completely gone (thousands pass away daily), and the nonprofit sector’s Baby Boomer generation will be (or should be) completely retired or in encore careers.

Without proactive preparation, the ramifications could be tragic: what I am calling this “grayin’ brain drain” will vacuum roughly eighty years of living history beyond the reach of institutional memory or education for the next-generation. Additionally, if we do not invite the elders to contribute back, we rob them of the sacred opportunity to strengthen their legacy and inform the future of the field. Already a sector that likes to look toward forward progress and not reflect back, this will leave us doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past unnecessarily and without even knowing it.


So what’s to be done?

My initial recommendations are for philanthropic and nonprofit leaders to try to the following…

  • Consider best practices in for inter-generational learning within industries. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The organization where I worked for years, EPIP, puts on salons that enable emerging foundation professionals to learn from and share their perspectives with senior and retired foundation CEOs. They use a simple formula that allows everyone a chance to speak and listen in an intimate, safe, and semi-formal setting. These are without fail the most popular sessions at EPIP’s annual conference. The senior leaders love it as well, as they get to connect with smart, diverse young leaders who they did not even know where out there.
  • Begin small convening at the sub-sector, movement or regional level for inter-generational learning salons or laboratories. Be sure to bring people together from across organizations and roles, so that there is a diverse mix of players in the room.
  • Try different formats, but make sure that it is truly a two-way dialogue and not a lecture series. Try to get retired leaders into the room, as they are free of the institutional politics that keep others from saying what is on their minds. Retired leaders are also more challenging for emerging leaders to meet, and they have fewer opportunities to contribute back to their fields – they will feel both incredibly appreciated and appreciative.
  • Be sure to document and evaluate the sessions. Try to get oral histories on recorded on video, or film the sessions themselves. This way you will both learn how to do inter-generational learning better in the future, and you will capture some of the wisdom and questions flying around the room.
  1. I think your recommendations are great but we first have to view nonprofit leadership as its own profession before they can be implemented. Universities and hospitals are excellent examples of passing knowledge from one generation to the next. Both of them are filled with professions (i.e. Professors, Doctors, Nurses, etc.). All of these professionals receive educational training followed by an apprenticeship and have to adhere to a code of ethics. Outside of fundraisers, I cannot think of where else this occurs in nonprofit leadership.
    Recently, the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance developed a certification program (CNP-Certified Nonprofit Professional) for nonprofit leadership professionals. I have not seen an outcry from foundations, watchdog organizations, government funders or regulators for nonprofit leaders to obtain their CNP status. We would not think of allowing a doctor or nurse to practice without certification and licenses. I had to ask myself then why do we allow nonprofit leadership too. The answer is society still views nonprofit leadership as just volunteer or humanitarian work and not a profession. Anybody can do it.

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