Conflict and the intergenerational boardKathy Keeley
Craft beer or wine tasting? Social-media or direct-mail fundraising appeals? Online or printed board packets? One-and-a-half-hour meetings or 3-hour marathons? You may laugh, nod, or sigh at these conflicts, but they are real challenges for a nonprofit board made up of more than one generation (as, of course, all boards should be). Think for a moment, and you’ll probably come up with some of your own.
Demographics and technology are driving change within our organizations at all levels. As group facilitators, we at GCN Consulting are seeing more and more intergenerational conflict crop up in nonprofit Boards of Directors. These can arise in many different forms, from strategy to fundraising to board development, but the underlying issues involve the same dynamics: generation-specific interests and beliefs, and how willing each board member is to hear and understand those outside their cohort.
Currently, we welcome four different generations of leaders to our boards, each with their own perspectives, ways of doing things, and leadership styles. The Silent Generation, approaching 80, fought the Korean War and stand up for doing right by the world. The Baby Boomers, in their mid 60s and early 70s, ruled passionately in a pre-digital world by seeking impact and measurable results. Gen X is turning 50, and wants to be involved in nonprofits while being careful to balance service and family time. Millennials want to engage with the mission, focus on their passions, and, as the first generation of digital natives, use digital tools to do it. And the fifth generation is closing in: As their oldest members turn 22, Gen Z is about to enter our world, along with another unique set of challenges for work and governance.
Each generation brings a different approach to organizing a campaign, an event, or a board meeting – so you can see how they might differ in setting priorities for an organization. And because every board member is busy, it’s rare that they take the time to listen across generations and come to an understanding about the underlying differences. That’s how we get open conflicts about time commitments for board members, the meaning of member engagement, the best strategy for organizational outreach, and other issues. In some cases, we see these conflicts driving board members to pull back from the board or disengage entirely.
Because every board member is busy, it’s rare that they take the time to listen across generations.
We hear stories from people who are the oldest on the board, and those who are the youngest, and each face a particular set of challenges in an environment where they are the one and only representative of their generation. This is why we bristle when we hear something to the effect of, “Our goal this year is to get a Millennial on our board!” Adding that one member will not solve your problem. While making sure you include age diversity in your board makeup, you must also pay attention to each generation’s expectations, motivations, and definition of engagement – as well as the diversity that exists within each generation.
So what do we do as facilitators to resolve these conflicts? We open up conversation about intergenerational conflict; share information about each group, including the expectations they carry with them; and foster a greater degree of listening, understanding, and communication. To help boards arrive at a shared understanding, we encourage organizations to play to the strengths of each generation, deepen the diversity of their board membership, and have more – not fewer – strategic conversations that involve multiple perspectives.
Have more – not fewer – strategic conversations that involve multiple perspectives.
Next time you are in board situation that feels like conflict, take a moment to reflect on the intergenerational dynamics at play, and consider whether a different set of filters or lenses is needed to understand it. Worried about board engagement? Make sure you have defined expectations carefully for all generations, taking into account their individual attitudes and attributes. When you listen and plan with multiple generations in mind, you can avoid adding to the conflict, and instead add value in your role as a board member or liason.
Kathy Keeley is GCN Executive Vice President, Programs and a senior consultant for GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.