Tough to Move Up, Tough to Move Out

Came across a link to the results of a listening tour Building Movement did among non-profit leaders back in 2004. The results of the conversations they recorded are very similar to the observations made by Ben Cameron in his address to the Southern Arts Federation this Fall. (Perhaps his speech was based on Building Movement’s study?)

The conversations Building Movement (BM) recorded were mainly among leaders of social service agencies, but as implied, had many common elements. Both noted that the younger generation is interested in balancing their lives rather than devoting so much of themselves to the job as their predecessors have done. Both also discuss the eagerness of the younger generation to participate in substantive decision making and responsibilities.

The BM conversations revealed that members of Generation X feel a great deal of pressure caught between an older generation which isn’t retiring and a younger generation coming into their own looking to become involved and effect change. Whereas the older generation has remained in the same positions for years, the younger ones move often looking for more promising opportunities and often contemplating leaving the field. This causes organizations to have people of a great deal of experience at a certain level and then a sharp decline just below. This can have grave implications for those places that haven’t engaged seriously in succession planning.

Part of the problem, Building Movement notes, is there is no structure currently that provides these leaders with a place to go or even transition to other than retirement. They are healthy enough to continue working but there are no opportunities available to them that would result in a net increase of openings for younger people. Since they did not open a retirement account in their 20s and 30s and with Social Security and health care iffy propositions, retirement may not be a very attractive option.

The lack of mentors to help cultivate the necessarily skills was a big concern. One of the few people who did have a mentor of sorts praised the mentor’s ability and willingness to point out that “new” ideas were actually old ones that have been revisited a number of times which prevented him from trying to reinvent the wheel. Another problem that was mentioned was that the older generation had all these relationships with funders that they weren’t passing on to the younger generation. Because they had not had extensive interactions with long term funders, when the younger leaders took over they were “perceived as less seasoned.” This lack of contact could have severe consequences for many organizations.

The most surprising result of the conversations for me was the reluctance to become executive director many of the younger generation had. I figured that position was the logical goal for those chomping at the bit for their predecessors to retire. This reticence stems back to the desire for a balanced life. The executive director position was seen as thankless and too heavy a burden to shoulder to still have time for one’s family. I don’t know if this sentiment is carried over to the arts. Having family members who have worked for social service non-profits, I can see the truth of this for that sector. Though I imagine they would say the same thing for the performing arts from the perspective of an outsider.

Building Movement has a monograph that integrates the findings of the talking sessions with research to make suggestions for cultivating new leaders and planning for the transition of existing leaders in a healthy manner. I haven’t had a chance to look at it at any length but since I often harp on succession planning, it would be a smart thing for me to cover it here in a future entry.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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