Generation gap, Part 1

By Todd Cohen

Call it the “Boomer Bottleneck.”

The oldest members of Generation X, 46 million Americans born from 1965 through 1981, are reaching age 40 this year, the advance guard of a generation that ultimately will replace the 80 million Baby Boomers, born from 1946 through 1964, the youngest of whom turned 40 last year.

That generational shift, compounded by the aging of 75 million “Traditionalists” born before 1946 and the 76 million “Millennials” born from 1982 through 2000, creates big challenges for nonprofits in diversifying their boards to better serve increasingly diverse constituencies, experts say.

Boomers increasingly dominate nonprofit boards, they said, and are not doing enough to welcome their elders or younger generations as members.

“We’re losing a lot of our pre-World War II, ‘Greatest Generation’ people, and we’re not inviting younger people,” says Sandra Hughes, a consultant on nonprofit governance in Sarasota, Fla. “We’re pushing people out at one end and not inviting people in at the other.”

People ages 40 to 59, essentially Boomers, accounted for 54 percent of nonprofit board members, according to a 2004 survey of nonprofit CEOs conducted by BoardSource.

In comparison, people age 70 or older accounted for only five percent of board members, and people under age 30 accounted for just 2 percent.

Five years ago, Hughes called on nonprofits to bridge generational gaps in the boardroom.

“Differences in skills and styles can work to the board’s advantage,” she said at the time, when she was senior governance consultant and executive adviser to the president at the National Center for Nonprofit Boards in Washington, D.C., now BoardSource.

“If a board ignores the differences, however, it runs the risk of marginalizing board members who have a great deal to offer,” she said then.

Today, she says, the focus closing the generation gap on boards has waned, despite the growing need to broaden their membership to better serve their communities.

Boomers now dominate nonprofit boards, she says, while the Traditionalists born before 1946 are not represented on boards as much as they were in the past.

But new generations bring important new perspectives and can breathe new life and ideas into organizations, she says.

She credits innovative nonprofit enterprises, such as bookstores at local Goodwill Industries sites and ReStore shops at local Habitat for Humanities chapters, to the entrepreneurship and “franchise-industry mentality” of Generation X.

“That changes the board room,” she says.

Other stories in series:

Part 2: Boards seen as under-performing nonprofit asset.
Part 3: Greater generational diversity seen as key to expanding talent pool.
Part 4: Generational matrix’ seen as tool for strengthening nonprofits.

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