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Posted by Tim Bryce on June 28, 2011

I have been actively involved with a wide variety of nonprofit volunteer organizations over the years, everything from professional trade groups, to local sports organizations, homeowner associations, and fraternal/civic organizations. There is one common denominator shared by such groups, namely, membership is dwindling. The idea of participating in a volunteer organization appears to be a foreign concept to young people. They are simply not joining in the numbers they did years ago. I’m not sure why this is, perhaps it is caused by time constraints or maybe just simple apathy. Consequently, such groups are either closing their doors or making do with less, much less.

Inevitably, as fewer younger people join, older members must stay in charge until someone can take their place. If the same people remain in control for too long, the nonprofit becomes prone to stagnation due to the lack of fresh ideas from new blood. Those few younger people who join feel somewhat intimidated by the old guard still in charge. They shouldn’t as the old guard, in most cases, is looking for some relief and are more than willing to pass the torch assuming the youngster is responsible and competent to fulfill the role. Such organizations need true workers, not just someone trying to make a name for himself. The young member, therefore, needs to prove him/herself in order to gain credibility and trust with the old guard. Assuming the young person can do this, the old guard should be wise enough to step aside and allow the young person to assume their duty.

Consider this though, what happens when the young person doesn’t demonstrate they are capable of doing the job, yet expect to move up the officer chain of command; should they move up? It depends. The obvious answer is, No, the person is not ready and shouldn’t advance. In reality, the young person has become dependent on letting the elders perform the work, and is content to let them do so. Under this scenario, if the elders can hold on until someone else can come forward with the right attitude, they should hang on until then. However, if the old guard is growing weary and it appears the youngsters are taking the elders for granted, you might just want to step aside and let the weight of the office fall squarely on their head of the youngster. In other words, they won’t take responsibility until they are forced to do so and when this happens, they will either sink or swim, and this is the danger of such an approach. If the person fails, the organization may very well suffer for it.

So, we basically have a Catch-22 whereby the younger people develop a general distrust of the elders and vice versa and the nonprofit suffers while everyone jockeys for position. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to overcome this problem. Then again, maybe there is, namely “communications.” For any transfer of power there has to be some open communications between the old and the new. They should not be viewed as adversaries as much as allies who think of what is best for the organization overall. The elders should be ready and willing to train their replacements, review policies and procedures with them, along with the various tools and techniques used to fulfill their duties and responsibilities. In turn, the youngsters need to ask a lot of questions. They may very well modify and improve how the job is implemented, but they must first understand the existing system before implementing any changes. Although the elders should monitor the young worker’s activity, they should avoid the temptation of covering for the youngster’s mistakes, otherwise this will create a dependency that is difficult to break. Give the person instruction and advice, but let the younger worker perform the work. It’s not a bad idea to follow-up and review the person’s work as well.

The ideal situation is to appoint younger people as assistants to key officers, thereby learning the roles. After the young person has assumed the role, keep the elder on in an advisory capacity. In other words, one stint as assistant, one stint as the actual officer, and one stint as an advisor. This would greatly facility the transition of power and bring a satisfactory level of conformity to the job. Unfortunately, not enough nonprofit groups do this.

When you discuss the old guard versus the new in nonprofit groups, it can be described as the immovable object meets the irresistible force. The young people think the elders are maintaining a stranglehold on the organization, and the elders think the youngsters are reckless who will ultimately destroy the group. No organization can survive with such deadlock. The two groups must seek common ground for the betterment of the organization overall. One thing is for certain, the old guard cannot do the job forever. At some point they must relinquish control to the younger members who must acclimate into the organization’s culture and assume their responsibilities. If they do not, the organization will slowly grind to a halt. Bottom-line, it is a matter of building trust between young and old and this can only happen through an effective dialog of communications. Only by communicating can we come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our people.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at

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Copyright © 2011 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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