Bridging the Generational Gap

Nov 15, 2010

Bridging Cultural Divides

Emily Heard, Senior Staff Consultant and David Styers, Senior Governance Consultant, BoardSource

July/August 2010 edition of Board Member, Volume 19, Issue 4.

Where does your board stand regarding generational diversity and competence? Where would you like to be? And how are you going to get there?

What has been a major experience in your life? World War II, the Cold War, man setting foot on the moon, MTV or reality TV?

What motivates you? Stability and security; recognition, respect and success; options and flexibility; or impactful work?

Your answers to these questions hint at which generation you belong to — the Greatest Generation (b. 1901–1924), the Silent Generation (b. 1925–1945), the Baby Boom generation (b. 1946–1962), Generation X (b. 1963–1980), or Generation Y/Millennials (b. 1981–2002).

Now, does your board have members from all or several of these groups? Generational diversity can benefit your board, your organization and, ultimately, your mission. And while working in collaboration with people of many ages can be challenging at times, there are ways to be "generationally competent" in both board building and board work.

Why boards should be generationally diverse
Given the recent troubled economic times, it has become increasingly clear that the future for nonprofits will be very different than once expected. As nonprofits navigate the "new future," they will need new donors and circles of influence, creative solutions to their challenges and new approaches to carrying out their missions to remain relevant and effective.

Having a mix of perspectives, skills, backgrounds and resources increases the board's ability to approach issues or problems from a variety of directions, to probe assumptions and to generate fresh, innovative ideas. Differing voices play an important role in increasing understanding of constituent and community needs and advancing an organization's mission.

Each generation brings unique perspectives and talents to the boardroom. For example, members of the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers benefit boards because they have built up contacts and connections, professional and personal experiences and, often, resources that they can contribute. Members of Generations X and Y have access to new networks and donors as well as fresh takes on old problems. A mix of generations increases the board's ability to chart its organization's future in these turbulent times.

Why boards aren't generationally diverse
So, if generational diversity is important, why don't more boards have members from all generations? And specifically, why aren't more members of Generations X and Y on boards? According to the BoardSource Nonprofit Governance Index, in 2007, only 2 percent of board members were under the age of 30, whereas 62 percent were over the age of 50. (Approximately, a quarter of the U.S. population is over the age of 50.)

We know anecdotally that board members tend to recruit others like themselves, which contributes to a lack of age diversity on boards. Also, in some cases, members of Generations X and Y are not recruited to serve on boards because there is skepticism about the need to have them, misconceptions about commitment, or uncertainty about where to find younger members. Some organizations also prefer to have a "C-Suite" or corporate officer type on the board and assume that younger people don't have contacts with resources.

In Next Generation and Governance Report on Findings, a BoardSource report based on interviews with 50 nonprofit chief executives and senior staff leaders, many of those interviewed suggested that those currently serving on boards "need to adopt a more positive outlook toward younger leaders." They encouraged board members to "view Generations X and Y as leaders today."

On the other hand, members of Generations X and Y are sometimes hesitant to seek board service opportunities because they don't think they are qualified and perceive boards as inaccessible. They also may be unaware of the impact of board service, don't know how to join a board and are uncertain about whether board service is a good use of their time.

Building a generationally diverse board
Therefore, boards committed to becoming generationally diverse must be intentional in their board building and in addressing the challenges that often surface when working across generations. They must have generational competence.

To build a generationally diverse board, BoardSource suggests you follow a board-building cycle.

The first step is to identify your needs. Many boards already use a board matrix to do this. The board matrix helps a board chart various characteristics, skills and talents that currently exist within its membership, while also identifying gaps. Add generation as one of the many factors to consider when focusing on board development.

Steps two and three: cultivate and recruit. Look to various sources for prospective younger members and then keep these pipelines open. Many local United Ways and community foundations have emerging leaders programs. Universities with M.B.A., nonprofit management and other graduate programs increasingly have board fellow programs, which provide students with the opportunity to work with a board on a project or on a limited basis. Many chapters of Net Impact, a membership organization of current and emerging leaders in corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, nonprofit management, international development and environmental sustainability, also have board fellow programs. Leadership programs, such Teach for America and Public Allies, promote board service to their alumni and Young Nonprofit Professionals Network groups are also a good source for Generation X and Y leaders.

Your board should learn what motivates each generation and then tailor your recruitment pitch to each. For example, members of Generation Y generally prefer to have an immediate impact and work with smart, creative people.

You also may want to consider inviting prospective board members to first serve on a task force or committee. This way, you can determine if they have what it takes to be effective board members.

Regardless of age, however, all board members need to be committed to the organization before seeking or accepting a board position. James Cleveland, president of Jumpstart, indicates that his organization seeks answers to three key questions during the cultivation and recruitment phase:

1."Can this person be of value to us, and do his or her interests align with our needs?"

2."Is this person good with organizations at inflection points and getting them to the next level of giving? When you look at your board, you have to look at donor fatigue and stagnation of advice and answers to questions."
3."Will this person contribute to discussions? When the same people talk at board meetings, it signals a lack of diversity on the board and cues the board to watch out for insular meetings."

Additional steps are to orient, involve and rotate. It's important to orient all members the same way so everyone has the same information about board service and your organization. New members, regardless of generation, also may benefit from having a board mentor. And don't forget to implement term limits or another mechanism for rotation to ensure ongoing room for diversity.

Finally, it is important to avoid tokenism. No board member wants to fill a quota, be expected to represent an entire subsection of the population, or feel isolated. Organizations are more successful integrating new voices when the new group equals 30 percent of the total — or, at a minimum, three people.

Becoming generationally competent in board work
As with all types of diversity, you should expect challenges to surface when working across generations in the boardroom.

To build generational competence, board members will need to work on building trust and respect for each other. It may be helpful for existing board members to remember what it was like when they joined the board. They wished to be welcomed.

"The more experience we have, the more we tend to neglect younger people's perspectives and experience," notes Ben Nemenoff of American Humanics. "The ability to revert is key. I try to put myself in the shoes of a 22-year-old and ask: What was my thinking like at that age? Do I need to act differently? Does the culture of our board appeal to them? It gives some grounding as to how to respond."

It's also important to view all members as assets rather than as threats; all new members want and deserve the same. However, as noted in the Next Generation and Governance Report on Findings:

"Chief executives tell us that their older board members often view their younger counterparts as threats to traditional ways of operating. For instance, when a Generation X or Y board member presents a new idea or raises a question that challenges a current approach, some older board members respond by saying 'We've always done it like this.' Chief executives tell us their boards need to develop a willingness to think positively about both the presence and intentions of younger members in order to work well with them."

Members of Generations X and Y, on the other hand, need to keep in mind that Baby Boomers do not identify as "seniors." As noted by David E. Ratcliffe of the Merrill Lynch Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Management in the October 15, 2009, issue of the Nonprofit Times Weekly, Baby Boomers are not "over the hill; they move the hill."

Here are some helpful hints to use when working across generations.
Language is important. Refrain from using terms that can be condescending, such as "youngster" or "over the hill."
Challenge all members with meaningful, interesting work.

Use time wisely. It is a valuable resource to all board members, and a work-life balance is of particular importance to Generations X and Y. Use of consent agendas can help.

Make meetings matter. Make time for strategic issues, not just reporting. Schedule meetings for times that are convenient for all members. Listen to everyone, and give everyone an opportunity to participate.

Focus on impact and outcomes.

Determine how technology can aid the work of the board. Consider online board books and e-mail between meetings. Balance the needs of tech savvy and nontechie board members.

Set policies, such as turning off cell phones during meetings.

Where does your board stand regarding generational diversity and competence? Where would you like to be? And how are you going to get there? Some boards may need to amend their bylaws, structure, recruitment practices, orientation and meeting agendas. Others may need to amend behaviors, biases and prejudices embedded in their cultures. Bridging generational differences takes time and commitment, but those boards that build those bridges will be better positioned to thrive in today's changing environment.

Many M.B.A. programs are encouraging students to participate in board fellowship programs with nonprofit boards. Here are some perspectives from students who have participated in such programs:

•Strong sense that young leaders have to work hard to "sell their skills."

•Strong desire to make an impact but found it hard to do.

•It takes a long time to get anything done.

•It is hard to feel connected to an organization with just quarterly board meetings.
A common misconception is that Generations X and Y do not fundraise and do not have financial resources to contribute. In 2008, BoardSource interviewed 50 nonprofit chief executives and senior staff to discover if, why, and how they engage Generations X and Y in governance; the resulting report contained some interesting comments regarding fundraising.

•Younger generations often are not burdened by the task of asking for money — particularly if the ask can be made online. "Younger generations are very willing to get involved in fundraising, and they're not nearly as burned out because they haven't been doing it for years," said Connie Williams of PENCIL Foundation. "They see it as an opportunity to expand their social network and are enthusiastic to build support for a cause they support. Their enthusiasm is the key."

•Younger generations can raise awareness of an organization's mission through technological vehicles, such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social networking. The result is donor bases that go beyond the corporate or foundation world.

•Giving does not have to be an issue for young board members if the board does not expect a set dollar amount. Leadership Tomorrow expects each board member to give at a level that is significant to him or her. This approach helps level the playing field for all members and alleviates any resentment among givers.

Peter C. Brinckerhoff, Generations: The Challenge of a Lifetime for Your Nonprofit (Fieldstone Alliance 2007).

Berit M. Lakey, The Board Building Cycle, Second Edition (BoardSource 2007).

BoardSource offers generational competence training for boards. For further information, contact BoardSource at or call 877-892-6293.