Navigating Nonprofit Leadership Sustainability Amidst Clash of Work Cultures

Published by on February 21, 2024

Learning from Generational Shifts: Balancing Past Lessons with Present Challenges

We’ve heard the saying, “It’s good to learn from your mistakes, but it’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” This gem from Warren Buffett resonates with me. I would prefer someone else make a mistake and allow me to learn from it rather than make a mistake, and I have to do the clean up on aisle 9.  

Think back to the good ol’ days (or maybe not-so-good, depending on how you look it). Many of us Gen Xers grew up with a “when you see the streetlights come on, come home” kind of freedom, translating into many questionable choices we made during high school. According to, we grew up under-parented and, because of this and the introduction of technology in our time, struggled with work-life ripple. We value a strong work ethic that was passed down from our parents and this has led to work boundaries issues.  

Fast forward to when we became parents. We swung the pendulum hard in the other direction, helicoptering over our kids like we were trying to win a gold medal in overparenting. Our over-parenting has come with a new set of issues that our children are now having to deal with. Increased anxiety and dependency among younger generations have been highlighted by as a direct result from helicopter parenting (yikes).

Bridging the Generational Divide: Embracing Change and Collaboration in Nonprofit Leadership

Although overcorrections are normal, we often question when another generation comes in and makes choices different from ours. We take it personally in some ways.

As Millennials and Gen Z observe the nonprofit leaders, they are scrutinizing our choices and making strategic career decisions. According to a survey conducted by Deloitte, 76% of Millennials believe that business leaders are too focused on their own agendas rather than considering the wider societal impact of their decisions. This indicates a growing trend among younger generations to prioritize purpose-driven leadership and social responsibility.

They notice how we’ve blurred the lines between personal and professional lives, turning our roles into 24/7 commitments, and that our personal lives have been impacted by our lack of self-care.

This leaves the seasoned staff thinking that the next generation of nonprofit leaders is weak, lazy, and not as committed to the missions. However, it’s essential to recognize that each generation brings its own strengths and perspectives to the table. According to a report by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their leadership approach, which can lead to greater innovation and impact within nonprofit organizations.

Preparing the Next Generation: Nurturing Emerging Leaders for a Sustainable Future

This realization leads us to a crucial question: How can we, as seasoned nonprofit leaders, do our part to get them prepared to step up into leadership roles so that we can retire and begin to take care of ourselves? After all, we have ignored our needs, and we are tired.

I had a joyrider (the word I use instead of client) who I will call Allison today (I changed the name to protect her identity). She had to be groomed by her Executive Director to step into the ED role when the current ED was ready to retire. When the ED joined the nonprofit, it was a young organization and still in its grassroots stage. The ED was able to take the founder’s vision and grow the organization from a city-based organization to a state-wide nonprofit organization. This took a lot of late-night calls from board members and funders; she went years without vacations and gave up weekends with family to be at programs. 

Although Allison was incredibly passionate about the organization, she was still unsure if she wanted the position when the ED decided to retire.She valued self-care and time with her family and was unsure if she would let those two things go. The idea of having to have an “always-on” mentality seemed draining to her. 

Many younger people are grabbling with this thought. Do I really want to give up my life for the organization?

(If you are interested in uncovering your values, click here to download a free tool.)

Redefining Nonprofit Leadership: Embracing Change and Collaboration for Sustainable Impact

So, what do well-intentioned but tired nonprofit leaders do? 

First off, let’s tip our hats to the younger generations for calling us out on our workaholic ways, and let’s be proud of them for learning from our mistakes and embracing the fact that they value themselves and their self-care. Kudos to the Gen Z and Millennials!

The second thing is that we need to redefine nonprofit leadership in the social impact sector. We must demonstrate that being a leader isn’t synonymous with being tethered to our desks, cellphones, or inboxes. We need to help our board members understand that change needs to happen. Let’s champion the idea of logging off at a reasonable hour, of taking genuine vacations where we make excuses for responding to emails just two hours each day. By setting boundaries, we can recharge and return to our missions with full cups, ready to pour our renewed energy back into what we care about.

Finally, we must foster a two-way mentorship and continuous learning culture. Offer your wisdom and experiences, but remain open to the new generation’s fresh perspectives and innovative solutions. Mentorship is a two-way street, rich with opportunities for growth on both sides.

This culture will encourage cross-generational dialogues that bridge the gap between seasoned veterans and emerging leaders, leading to innovation.  We create a more resilient and adaptive nonprofit sector by fostering an environment where every voice is heard and valued.

By embracing these changes, we’re not just preparing the next generation of nonprofit leaders but also adopting a way to take care of ourselves. We’re showing them it’s possible to lead passionately, serve the community, and maintain a fulfilling life outside of work.

Finding Balance and Sustainability: Navigating the Waves of Nonprofit Leadership

Recognize that balance will never be achieved (because really, when is there balance in work), but rather embrace the waves in your organization. Know when to give a little more, and take advantage of times when things are slower. Make sure your nonprofit plans for “low tides” so that refueling can happen. This is essential for sustainable nonprofit leadership and long-term success in our missions. We know that organizations with a focus on employee well-being and work-life balance experience lower turnover rates and higher levels of employee satisfaction, leading to increased productivity and effectiveness.

All leaders, old and new, must understand that there is a sweet spot between dedication to our causes and personal well-being. Let’s strive to make the nonprofit world a place where everyone wants to contribute, not just for the sake of the cause but because the culture supports their growth, happiness, and health.

PS…. wonder what happened to Allison? She took an honest, hard look at her values. She figured out that the organization aligned with her values and had a unique opportunity to talk to the board of directors before she took the promotion and created boundaries. The organization is better from her taking the time to decide how she could serve the organization and how she could still honor her other values. Her team appreciates her making the cultural changes she has made.

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Christine Kutnick is a go-to guru for sprinkling joy, harmony, and peace into everyday life. With a past life as a nonprofit ninja, she’s navigated the wilds of start-ups, associations, academia, grant foundations, and even corporate-sponsored nonprofits. In 2022, she decided to ditch her heavy backpack of nonprofit woes for a lighter, joy-filled existence. Now, she’s all about guiding kind-hearted folks towards a life bursting with joy, living true to their values and purpose, all while keeping self-care front and center. You can learn more about her coaching at

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