Monday, December 5, 2011

Calling Everyone (Not Just Boomers): Which Battle Are You Fighting?

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Thanks to Elizabeth Weaver Engel for pointing me to this opinion piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy reacting to a recently released study that shows more than 12 million Baby Boomers want to start new nonprofits or socially-oriented for-profits over the next decade to give themselves the opportunity to continue contributing positively to society in their golden years.

I've written about this generational dynamic before--Boomers who, now faced with the prospect of retirement but still flush with health and vitality, not quite financially ready to quit working, and still wanting to contribute to the betterment of others, are moving out of senior positions in the for-profit world and going to work for or starting their own nonprofits.

The author of the opinion piece, has some stark advice for them--don't do it.

More than a million nonprofit groups already exist, and plenty of for-profit ventures are dedicated in part to providing some social benefit. Adding millions more of such entities is not good for this nation.

Such a multiplicity of organizations would move America further away from developing coherent analyses of public problems. And it would lead the country to define and treat social concerns as fragmented individual or local matters. That would make it profoundly more difficult to mount any significant effort to advance the broad-based change needed in our social, political, and economic institutions.

It's an interesting perspective, and I've commented on it before, too. The fragmented approach to solving large, complex problems seldom works. We know that. As association professionals, we are often faced with challenges that we have neither the resources nor the competencies to adequately address. Worse yet, there are often competing associations in our fields, also working on the same problems with inadequate resources and underdeveloped skill sets.

Yet few of us explore what we could accomplish if we pooled our talents and resources and worked together on common issues. Too often, we're too busy protecting our own turf--both the products and services on which the health of our organizations have come to depend and the sense of security that our leadership and employment offer in a turbulent world--to even consider what capacities could be built and new benefits created with a more collaborative approach to problem solving.

In my own experience, such intentions are often stifled by a subtle and unexpressed game of chicken. Two association leaders of two competing associations each recognize the futility of their own attempts and the potential for success that lives within partnership, but neither is willing to blink unless the other blinks first. And each is fearful that the other will pounce and exploit whatever opening they may finally work up the courage to offer.

Is there a better way? Are we all destined to act in the manner of these Boomers in this opinion piece? I have to battle, I have to provide, I have to succeed, or that success will have no meaning in my life or in the lives of the people I serve. What if we convinced ourselves that this kind of self-actualizing success comes not from the individual struggle against the goal, but in the attempt to build the coalition that could best achieve the goal? What could such an approach mean for our community, our profession, and ourselves?


  1. Hey, Eric, interesting observation about the proliferation of not-for-profits, but its not primarily because of Boomers.

    Lots of folks start groups because they don't think a service is being provided or because they think current organizations are doing lousy jobs at it. The founders of these groups come from every age, race, ethnic group, and geographic area.

    BTW, lots of Boomers have been laid off from jobs, can't find work, and have nowhere near enough money to retire. Some start not-for-profits because it's something they know how to do.

  2. Thanks for the comment, David. I guess I saw this post as less about Boomers and more about solving complex problems. A thousand ants can steal your picnic lunch, but not if they're all pulling in different directions.