Leadership for Change: What difference does ‘young’ make?

I guess that I’m still ‘young’ in the nonprofit leadership realm, but I certainly feel my aging acutely, given that I spend so much time with my students and with truly young activists in social justice struggles.

While I feel that I straddle, somewhat, the young professional and older generations, I am fascinated by the contributions and the perspectives of Millennial leaders and their peers who fall just outside that generation. So are the folks at Building Movement, which recently released a report on younger leaders in social justice movements and the challenges they face in building sustainable, thriving organizations with capacity for large-scale social change.

My questions, in reading the findings from these interviews, are the extent to which young leaders approach these challenges any differently than others, as well as what generational shifts in nonprofit executive power might mean for the future of the sector, and our causes.

The highlights from the interview summaries:

  • Leading social change organizations into the future requires inspiring visions for large-scale change; new methods for organizing (including seeing technology as a means to connect with people, instead of being distracted by its ‘shininess’); working across ideological, sectoral, and other boundaries; and commitment to building scale and pursuing collective impact.
  • Job satisfaction is high, which bodes well for long-term staying power and for the ability of these leaders to recruit others to their causes. We can never make social change work as appealing as it should be if the image other aspiring leaders have of us is as overworked martyrs, sacrificing our happiness on an altar of ‘good deeds’. These leaders seem to get that, and they express a joy of purpose that should inspire imitation. This doesn’t mean that they don’t feel strained, though, and I was discouraged by the concerns expressed by young leaders hoping to parent in the near future. We need to build in ways to help these leaders balance competing demands–so that they don’t compete so much–as an investment in their longevity and health, as well as in their strategic abilities.
  • For some of these young leaders, transformational leadership–using their organizations and their positions to change society–seems to come much more easily than the more mundane obligations to run actual organizations. I think a lot of this stems from inadequate preparation to run programs and supervise staff (the latter being the greatest challenge mentioned), and from insufficient infrastructure to mentor and develop the other layers of staff that organizations need to thrive. Maybe it’s because I have begun to see the world through a consulting lens, but I do think that there are opportunities here to use technical assistance and capacity development to support nonprofit leaders through the work of culture change and mentoring and skill building.
  • Foundations and donors play a huge role in equipping organizations to meet future challenges, both in terms of the amount of funding needed (we have to change our expectations about how many staff are needed to administer well-functioning organizations) but also in the structure of funding flows. We need multi-year general support, attention to base-building, and investment in broad and sweeping visions. We need funding partners, in every sense of that word.
  • There are young leaders of color currently making huge contributions to social change work, despite the way that lack of diversity is often bemoaned by those in positions of power within movements. The challenge is not to bring more diverse representation to these organizations, then, but to build ladders of leadership development for the next ‘tier’ of leaders of color, to stop placing disproportionate demands on leaders to represent their communities (advisory boards, anyone?), and to provide the necessary resources to help these leaders succeed.
  • Young leaders don’t often see themselves staying with a given organization for long, so organizations have to get much more comfortable with executive transition. None of these leaders saw themselves moving out of social justice work, and many envision that they will stay in executive roles, but this generation is not wedded to an organization, so social change groups have to build identities that transcend individuals.

If you are a young leader in a social change organization, how do you reflect on your experiences? How do you feel that you approach your work differently than your peers from other generations? Than young executives in other sectors?

What will it take to support your social transformation work, now and in the future?

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