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We’ve become no strangers to change since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but one change we may not have thought too much about recently is the change that comes with the aging of the nonprofit workforce. The oldest members of the Baby Boom generation are turning 75 this year, and the senior members of Generation X are only three years from their 60th birthdays.

The transition from the “old guard” of association leaders to the next generation is expected to come with lots of changes, and not just because millennials and Generation Z have different working styles from boomers and Gen X’ers.

For one thing, many members of the old guard are reluctant to retire or even step back, for a variety of reasons.

Fear of letting go. “Many boomers won’t discuss their plans to retire or slow down due to the fear they will be marginalized or passed over for meaningful work,” Tara Withington of Association Executive Director Inc. told Associations Now magazine in 2018. When it comes to retirement, many association executives are taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach.

Reluctance to let go. “Boomers don’t want to just hang on until they can’t work anymore,” Withington noted. “They want to make sure that they are mentoring and sharing their wisdom. And, quite honestly, I’ve heard from millennials that they’re not ready for the boomers to just walk out the door either. They rely on us for guidance and insight.”

Finances. It’s no secret that nonprofit salaries tend to be lower than those in the for-profit sector. While directors of large national or international associations may be making comfortable incomes, those running smaller local, state or regional organizations may have been unable to save much money – if any – for retirement. As one still-working senior puts it, “My retirement plan is ‘Hello, welcome to Walmart.’”

On a related note, many boomers 66 and older are using their Social Security benefits as a retirement savings plan while they continue to work. Those who start collecting Social Security at full retirement age – which ranges from 66 for workers born between 1943 and 1954 to 67 for those born in 1960 and later -- can earn unlimited income without reducing their benefit amount. People who choose this option can continue to live on their salaries while setting aside their Social Security checks for the future – or vice versa.

The good news is, the boomers aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. The bad news is, because of this, many associations aren’t planning for the inevitable time when they do.

Succession planning is a must, but it needs to acknowledge that the person who looks like the perfect choice to succeed Bob or Betty Boomer may not be around when the time comes. There’s no escaping the fact that younger workers don’t keep the same employer for long. Whether they move across town for better pay, across the country for a spouse’s or partner’s job, or out of the workforce altogether to care for children, we can’t put all our future eggs in one person’s basket, no matter how perfect a fit they are for that upcoming executive director opening.

Changing an association’s office culture is key to preparing for the next generation of leadership. Much has been written about what younger workers want from their jobs:

Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that associations can be managed remotely. In addition to accessing client associations’ emails from their home computers, ADG staff can also receive calls to clients’ lines on their cell phones, dial into the client line to check messages, and receive voicemail messages in clients’ email inboxes. Many of our members don’t even know we aren’t all in the office every day.

When the pandemic is behind us and the world fully reopens, many workers say they’re reluctant to go back to commuting five days a week – and not all of these workers are under 40. A culture of flexibility goes a long way toward attracting and retaining association leaders and future leaders of all ages.

A sense of purpose. Younger people want more from their jobs than a paycheck. They want to know the work they do is making a difference in the world. For associations, this is an easy sell. We are making a difference – but are we communicating that effectively to the next generation of association leaders?

Mentors, not managers. Ignore your curmudgeonly uncle’s rants on Facebook about “kids these days.” Younger people want to work. They just don’t want to submit to an authoritarian management model that, thankfully, appears to be going the way of the Walkman. As a wise person once said, “People work for managers. They follow leaders.” To grow a leader, be one.

Younger association leaders have their own thoughts on the challenges of stepping into an executive role, including resistance from older association members, board members and staff who doubt “that youngster” has what it takes to run the show. If the new, young executive is also female, and the membership is largely male, that pushback can intensify.

Three young executives, two women and one man, who ranged in age from 29 to 33 when they assumed their positions, told Associations Now in a 2017 article how they met those challenges. We won’t go into their stories here – you can read them on the magazine’s website – but here are a few key takeaways.

Listening and learning. Early in their tenure, they sat down and listened to as many stakeholders as they could: officers, directors, staff, sponsors and members – including the doubting Thomases and Theresas who had concerns about their leadership. They took notes, listened between the lines, and factored all that input into their action plans.

Showing them the numbers. After a few months or a year, they had quantifiable evidence to share with Tom, Terri et al. – increased membership numbers, increased event attendance, increased engagement on social media, increased website traffic and, above all, increased revenue. One of them had the opportunity to sit down with a retired member who had expressed doubts about her leadership at the beginning, and show him the growth the association had experienced since she came aboard.

“I said, ‘I understand that my leadership may be a little bit jarring for you, but realize that not only are we maintaining member services, but we’re growing them,’” she told Associations Now.

Thinking young. News flash: Not only are association executives getting older; so is the membership. Next-gen executives are using their perspective as young adults to identify what their fellow millennials and Gen Z’ers want from a professional association, develop those benefits, and reach out to prospective young members where they live.

ADG’s association management staff ranges in age from under 40 to over 60, and we have 25 years of experience assisting associations in transitioning to new leadership. If your organization needs guidance in planning for the next generation of leadership, give us a call. We’ve been there.