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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: Do you feel the force of the demographic tsunami?

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert from our academic faculty to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

Last year, I was introduced to a report called "Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector." Intrigued by the title, I decided to throw it in my "read while on an airplane" file. Once I finally packed my bags, boarded, and had a chance to read through the report, I immediately felt it was one of the most important monographs in the last two decades. Having been a member of the World Future Society for the past thirty five years, I have read a lot of literature focusing on trends, and I know it can be overwhelming to sift through all of the dialogue about what nonprofits should expect to see in the future. To alleviate some of this pressure, this week I will introduce you to one of the trends described in "Convergence," which was compiled by La Piana Consulting and commissioned by The James Irvine Foundation. The report was completed and published in November of 2009, and you can click here to download a copy.

Here's what we know: Many in nonprofit leadership positions have been hanging on by cutting more than they even thought possible. We in the academic community are likewise witnessing a Draconian withdrawal of public dollar support. In order to cope with the economic climate and achieve sustainability, we'll need to stay on the cutting edge of innovation and respond to sector changes, like shifts in giving and volunteering. Here's what we need to know: What can we expect the social sector to look like in the future? To answer this question, we need a meaningful understanding of what trends are going to have the most impact and reach. "Convergence" is a great place to start.

The report discusses the following five specific trends:

  • Demographic Shifts Redefine Participation
  • Technological Advances Abound
  • Networks Enable Work to Be Organized In New Ways
  • Interest in Civic Engagement and Volunteerism is Rising
  • Sector Boundaries are Blurring

Covering all of these trends would be overwhelming within the confines of a single blog post, so here I will introduce you to the first trend, and later this month we’ll take a deeper look into the second trend. However, I want to emphasize that these trends should not be isolated, but rather understood as interrelated parts of a whole, meant to be woven together. I encourage you to read over the report so that you can better understand how these trends work together to help you develop an even more meaningful and clear idea of the future of the sector.

So, let's dive in. The first trend, "Demographic Shifts Redefine Participation," reflects how generational and demographic shifts will be seismic, much like the broad sweeps of two momentous tsunamis. In the history of the United States, three large-scale cultural shifts have fundamentally altered who we are and how we care for each other. Each wave has involved an enormous influx of immigrants, whom our society currently labels "illegal." These waves have been met with resistance, even violence at times. The first wave included immigrants from Europe dating back to the founding of America. The second came involuntarily as slaves from Africa. The third wave, which we experience today, is a great migration of Latinos. Each of these waves has been so overwhelming that restrictive laws or resistance were rendered ineffective. Ultimately, the diversity they have created has significantly added to the American experience and permeated the nonprofit sector with new creativity and vitality.

The second major tsunami reflects the generational shifts in nonprofit leadership. As a nonprofit executive for nearly forty years, I was used to having the next generations put in their time by learning on the job and gradually moving into leadership. However, the technological revolution has democratized the way we approach leadership, making "shared leadership" imperative. The new nonprofit sector will have young leaders acting on behalf of the mission, and succession planning will be part of an organization's life and culture, not a linear phenomenon.

For years, we have tried to teach others about "cultural competency" through workshops. These are now becoming archaic. Going forward, new organizations will have to live, breathe, and practice demographic diversity in order to stay afloat.


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