March 1, 2005

A Treasure Trove of Potential Leadership Talent: The Boomers

In this commentary on the 2005 Bridgespan Group report, "The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit," Marc Freedman, president and founder of Civic Ventures, suggests that a new generation of 50- and 60-somethings—who are poised to invent a new stage of life, and of work—can help the sector reduce its leadership deficit.

By: Marc Freedman, President and Founder, Civic Ventures

A commentary on The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit

Where will we find the human beings to do those things that only human beings can do—specifically, to lead, manage, and staff a growing nonprofit sector historically long on idealism and short on capacity? As “The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit” drives home, there is nothing abstract or philosophical about this question. It is rapidly becoming an urgent plea, as the experience gap in the social sector widens into a chasm.

Tinkering will not do. The human resource needs opening up at all levels of the nonprofit world are simply too large and too near. While the answer won’t ultimately be simple or singular, there is one place we need to concentrate our quest for talent: the vast population of aging boomers now moving into their 50s and 60s.

We won’t find the numbers anywhere else. We’re on the verge of what demographers are calling the Floridization of America. And it’s not just about warm bodies. We’ve invested an enormous amount in building up the human capital of this newly aging generation. We couldn’t build campuses fast enough in the1960s and 1970s when they were starting out. Why not recapture these investments— many made with public dollars—in a way that strengthens the greater good?

There are two additional reasons to think this direction makes sense. First, changes in the numbers of Americans over 50 are matched by transformation in the nature of the post-midlife period. Buoyed by gains in longevity and health, this new generation of 50- and 60-somethings is poised to invent a new stage of life, and of work.

Second, there is growing evidence that a significant segment of these individuals are yearning to renegotiate their relationship with work, in a way that is not only more meaningful personally, but that means something beyond themselves. In a way that feeds not only individual but social renewal. A full half of the leading edge boomers are thinking seriously about launching a new chapter in what might be called “good work.” For more than one in five it is a top priority.

What’s more, that same research shows that they don’t want to wait to follow this dream in what were traditionally the retirement years. There is a strong desire to make the move to work in the social sector between ages 50 and 55. Why so soon? A big part of the pull is the desire to assemble a body of work, to accomplish something significant that can’t be achieved in a year or two, to carve out what might be called an Encore Career. This bonus phase of contribution—for many, an eight to ten-year career—may be shorter in duration than midlife work, yet it holds the potential to be every bit as significant. Not just for individuals, but for nonprofits who don’t have the resources to invest a lot of time or training in someone who’s just passing through.

Like solving the nonprofit leadership deficit, making the most of the aging of the boomers won’t happen easily or automatically. And it will demand breathtaking innovation—not only through rewriting the career trajectory, and helping experienced professionals bridge into the non-profit sector—but also through creating the infrastructure for large numbers of nonprofit leaders to sign up for another, albeit renegotiated, tour of duty.

Will we meet this challenge? It is a tall order to be sure—but not too tall. After all, the history of aging in America is one of spectacular innovation and change. Fifty years ago we didn’t even have retirement communities or senior centers. And that’s not the only source of inspiration. At the middle of the last century we invented the GI Bill to help millions of Americans navigate their way back to useful roles in civilian life. We’ll need to think at that scale once again.

According to some, demography is destiny. In truth, the outcome is in our hands. To invoke the late Peter Drucker—who in his tenth decade and final year won his seventh award for producing the best 2005 article in the Harvard Business Review—“the best way to predict the future, is to create it.”


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