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Executive Transition: The Role of Board Diversity, Youth, and Zombies

by Guest Blogger
We are pleased to offer this post by Stephanie Cotsirilos, Maine-based organizational consultant, as part of our Mission Driven Leadershift series.

Succession is often wickedly intertwined with the state of the board’s functioning and the enterprise’s strategy . . . when facing significant changes in the environment—such as new technologies, new delivery mechanisms, and different preferences in younger generations—the board may lack members with sufficient experience with these new phenomena . . .”[1]

“Cross-generational leadership that blends the wisdom and experience of senior leaders with the curiosity and creativity of younger leaders makes our sector stronger. Not just immediately, but in the long term as we prepare for the current generation of executives and board members to retire.”[2]

“It’s like the last twist in a horror movie. You think the baby boomers are dead, or at least easing into retirement, and then they thrust their claw up from the dirt, or lunge from the bathtub with a knife.” [3]

Board composition

While it’s inarguable that nonprofit executive transition is one of the board’s highest duties, the board’s competence to fulfill that duty depends on who is on the board. Let’s hope it’s not zombies.

bridgeA board stuck in the past – and that is often a non-diverse board – will lack capacity to build bridges to new leaders and to identify, attract, hire, support, and keep forward-looking, vibrant, new chief executives.

I risk the zombie references here because I’m an early Baby Boomer myself. I own a mirror. I know that the future of nonprofit leadership will not look like me. I’m not saying mature folks have nothing to offer, only that we must be ready to share our assets and experience humbly – without seeking inappropriate control. If we lose sight of our obligation to the future, we risk joining the ranks of the walking dead. Personally, I’d rather not.

Moving on.

It’s time to take the diversity, including age diversity, of nonprofit boards seriously as a key to success in executive transitions. It’s no accident that board composition tops the agenda of Leading With Intent (LWI), BoardSource’s January 2015 Governance Index.[4]

Nonprofit boards are becoming smaller, making member selection, diversity, reasonable turnover, term limits, and methods for staying connected to former members with institutional memory all the more important.[5] Yet progress is slow:

  • 91% of LWI respondents’ board chairs are over 40 and 90% are White.
  • 94% of LWI respondents’ chief executives are over 40 and 89% are White.
  • Board members are as old as or older than they were among LWI respondents 20 years ago. [6]

A board, after all, is supposed to reflect the community. Does yours? Even in Maine, there is often considerably more diversity in the population than there is on our nonprofit boards.

Intergenerational board composition sends a powerful message about the organization’s values, energy, flexibility, and ability to connect to the next wave of leaders.[7] What message does your board send?

Do you have effective term limits on your board? Access to fresh ideas, perspectives, and modes of communication using rapidly evolving technology? A place where those with institutional memory can continue to contribute?

Upon reviewing your board’s characteristics, will an excellent chief executive candidate be attracted to your organization? Will your board understand her values and goals?

What does leadership look like to you? Picture your next CEO.

Do you develop leaders from inside your nonprofit? Some commentators argue that a deficit in internal leadership development corresponds to undesirable turnover from the top down.[8] Who is managing your nonprofit daily? Are they perchance 40-ish or younger? Does your board see them as leaders?

And yes, there is always the question of fundraising and the fact that “traditional” board members may possess or have access to more financial assets than younger members, at least for now. But no one lives forever. Let’s start building bridges toward new models for earned and contributed revenues. Let’s reach out for expertise on the things that are important to different people and can help develop the networks to grow community support.[9]

If we don’t, we relegate our nonprofit’s future to . . . what?

A case study

Allow me to share a positive story that involved an arts organization’s vibrant, young board chair and her role in hiring an equally vibrant new chief executive. I was lucky enough to observe this situation as transition consultant, and then Interim Executive Director.

On the approaching retirement of a long-standing, visionary founder/director, the board adjusted to include 30- and 40-somethings, many with nonprofit leadership training. Much of the board was still “traditional”: mature people with experience, access to assets, and a love of the arts. One of the 30-somethings became the board chair, however, and injected several kinds of diversity into the mix: gender, age, and ethnicity (she was a Chinese-American). She and her young colleagues delved into technology, data analysis, and media to support an executive search.

During a transition understandably colored by memory and emotion, a winning candidate emerged: also a 30-something, an African-American living in China with his family and wanting to return to the United States to re-connect with the arts, in which he had been active in years past.

How did this Maine organization connect with this unusual and outstanding candidate? How did it gain insight into what might be important to him? How did it mobilize Portland’s Chinese-speaking community when the candidate and his wife flew here for an interview? Largely through an increasingly diverse, intergenerational board that shared wisdom and energy and grew its internal relationships. Was it all easy? No. But they did it. The young board chair, by the way, had the foresight to recruit a deeply trusted and seasoned advisor, who succeeded her as chair. What they learned with each other and the new chief executive is sustaining the organization.

Furthermore, the new executive’s presence enriches not only the arts organization he now leads, but also an increasingly diverse southern Maine community.

Finally, at the end of my interim tenure, it was perhaps my greatest honor to hand the reins to people both decades younger than myself and somewhat older. We had become colleagues and mutually respectful friends. What a privilege.


We Boomers can choose to stand ready to help and to understand when our leadership is no longer chosen by the people around us – then to discover what grace demands and do it. With a full heart, let’s cheer our young nonprofit colleagues on. Let’s be there for them, if they want us. Their road will not be an entirely easy one, as we know from experience. Let’s have some flowers ready to throw in their path.

About the Author

Stephanie CotsirilosCotsirilos is a consultant, attorney, and writer who brings over 30 years’ combined experience in the performing arts, law, and management consulting to her work. She folds her background on and off Broadway, her former New York law practice, and her broad civic and professional engagement in Maine into a multidisciplinary approach to organizational health, strategic planning, and executive transition. She recently served as Portland Ballet’s Interim Executive Director. She holds a B.A. cum laude in Comparative Literature from Brown University, an M.M.A. in singing from Yale Music School, and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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