Our Black Turtleneck Moment: Next Generation of Leadership
Last fall at the Independent Sector Conference, I was given the privilege of delivering a workshop on next generation leaders. For folks who don’t’ know, Independent Sector is a leadership network of 600 or so of the largest and most prominent nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs in the country, and every year their annual conference brings together thousands of top leaders from these organizations. Essentially, Independent Sector is THE nonprofit establishment – so naturally they are interested in the future of the sector. Which is how I found myself in the pretty cool position to talk about next generation leaders.
As I prepared for this opportunity, though, I started to get a little stuck. As I tend to do when I’m given any task that seems a little too straightforward, I started to pick it apart.
I mean, what does it mean to be “next generation” anyway?
In the simplest of terms, it means that you’re the generation that came after the last one. And, sure, that’s who YNPN represents - Millennials and Gen Xers – the folks were born after the boomers who established the nonprofit sector as many of us know it.
But for some reason, using this cool space to talk about how great our constituents are seemed kind of...I don’t know. Small. And short-sighted. Because when you think about it, as a society in general and as a sector specifically, we’re in the midst of a shift that‘s “next generation” in a different way.
When you think of it in terms of your phone or of your operating system, next generation means something more than “younger” or “new,” right? And that phone or that OS isn’t inherently better because it’s younger or new. It’s not inherently better at all, actually. It’s only better if...
...it builds on what worked well and what people loved about the original.
...it directly fixes past mistakes - broken things and bugs.
...it incorporates new technology and solutions available to us now that weren’t available before.
...it looks fresh! The look and feel of it is updated to fit the current context.
When I started thinking about the concept of next generation this way, the potential of the conversation felt bigger, and frankly way more interesting. Mostly because I knew for a fact that even though Millennials and Gen Xers have a lot to contribute as natives to this more flexible, nimble way of approaching change work, every person and every organization in the sector, regardless of age or how established they are is called to be a part of this sector upgrade - this next generation of leadership. And I got to be the one to call it out in front of this giant audience.
This was my Steve Jobs moment.
So I put on my black mock turtleneck (sike. I rocked an orange batik dress), got up in front of the room, and laid out a few things:
First, I shared some lessons gathered from working with and observing folks out in the field who actually seem to be having an impact on some of the increasingly complex issues facing our communities.
Lesson 1: Focus on goals over form. If your plan or your organizational structure isn’t going to have an impact, be willing to change it.
Lesson 2: Relationships are everything. Cultivate them. Rely on them.
Lesson 3: Ignore intersectionality at your peril. The beautiful people in our communities are made up of lots of identities. The work we do with them will not succeed unless it recognizes and embraces all of those identities.
Lesson 4: Value community-centered solutions over silver bullets. Replication isn’t everything. Sometimes what works in Jackson, MS can only work in Jackson, MS. And that’s okay.
Lesson 5: Listen to data that speaks to both the head and the heart.
Then I turned the floor over to folks from three organizations that I think are already living and breathing this sector upgrade:
Ai-Jen Poo and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, whose intergenerational, intersectional, and humanistic Caring Across Generations campaign is audaciously and simultaneously taking on issues of immigration reform, quality care for an aging America, and a living wage for younger Americans.
Decker Ngongang from Echoing Green’s Black Male Achievement Fellowship Program, which is the first fellowship program in the world for folks who are starting up new and innovative organizations that address the barriers facing black men and boys in the United States.
Frances Kunreuther & Sean Thomas-Breitfeld of the Building Movement Project, who decided to go beyond simply researching and promoting alternative organizational structures for social justice organizations, but took on a radical co-leadership model within their own organization in order to increase their impact.
Finally, I talked about what YNPN does to try and cultivate rather than stifle this type of next generation leadership. You can read more about that here. (Note that there’s no mention of a need for more credentialing and certification programs... :)
The energy of the comments and conversations that followed once the session ended signaled that the message resonated and that despite what people may say about the sector establishment, folks are definitely ready for an upgrade.
And I think it’s subtly for a lot of the same reasons people would get excited for a new operating system or their new phone. It’s not just because they need the next thing that’s shiny. They’re excited to see what the collection of human knowledge and shared work has brought us to next - how we’ve taken the best ideas and brought them together to make something that might change the way that each of us lives our lives for the better. The sector is definitely ready.