Is There Ageism In The Philanthropy World?

The obvious answer is “of course.” There is age discrimination everywhere in the U.S. employment realm and there is little reason to dispute it in our realm as well. A recent online conversation about ageism in the nonprofit world got me to thinking about whether it is true in our side of the sector as well.

The recent article which initiated the conversation decried the inability of a 59-year-old CEO who lost a position to find another in the field. Assuming the article to be accurate, and there is no reason to doubt it, this otherwise talented and productive professional lost his/her position through a merger/reorganization and has not been able to find another position since. All of the feedback suggests that he or she is the victim of ageism.

The facts ring true based on an experience I had about 11 years ago when I myself was in my mid 50’s At the time, the foundation of which I was EVP had closed and search firms were contacting me with regularity. Their calls were for naught as I had decided to develop our own philanthropy advisory firm. But one exchange stands out.

A search firm called about a position that was absolutely not right for me even had I been looking. But I did know someone for whom it was a perfect match. When I mentioned the potential candidate’s name, the response was – “We know about him but we are looking for someone younger.” Leave aside the legality of that comment!!!! The person I mentioned is my age and thus was then in his mid-50’s. When I told that to the headhunter, he said to me: “oh, we thought you were younger.”

That may have been flattering to me, just as it is even today when I have to present an ID to prove I am eligible for senior discounts, but it certainly is infuriating. It told me where I would stand if I ever had wanted to look for a job.

It also seems true in the volunteer realm. My role on boards or committees has become, implicitly, that of “elder.” My experience and sagacity are welcome, but I see that I am no longer viewed as a future leader. [I have had plenty of leadership positions as a volunteer, so I am not bemoaning missed opportunities; only noting how I seem to be perceived.]

Having said that, the world in which I function, advising and teaching philanthropists and foundations, does seem to be a bit of an exception. There is quite a lot of respect for the depth of experience and, shall I say, wisdom, which comes from long involvement in the field. It seems to be understood that those of us above a certain age threshold may indeed bring value and knowledge. After all, philanthropy is all about judgment, and judgment is oft-times fundamentally improved with a broader and deeper and longer perspective. To be sure we would not likely be on the short list of candidates to run those foundations, but unlike in some other fields [e.g., IT or Social Media], age is not an automatic deterrent to a contract.

Another area where experience makes a huge difference and age is not an inherent deterrent is organizational transitions. In the nonprofit world, there is a growing stratum of trained Interim Executives. It is a very constructive development and many organizations are well served when they use someone without long-term aspirations to move an organization into readiness for new leadership. There are now training programs for interim executives, and a growing body of evidence of the value they bring to the not-for-profit sector.

I invite the foundation world to consider the concept of interim leadership as well. I, for one, would be very open to working with any and all philanthropy organizations to develop this sub-expertise.

Back to the issue of age discrimination …

There is a great sadness in observing this. Take the case of the 59-year-old mentioned above, or the then 56-year-old mentioned in my example. They are productive, energetic, proven and very likely low risk. Organizations would most certainly have been the immediate beneficiaries of a wealth of applicable leadership skills.

The standard rebuttals are three-fold:

1. They would like to bring someone on with the potential of leading for the next 15-20 years. In hearing that, I wonder what world they are living in. The average tenure these days is five-seven years. Sometimes 10. A 56-year-old will only just be getting to the normal retirement age after nine years – hardly a short-term investment in today’s world. And many are productively working well into their 70’s.

2. They want new thinking, young blood, innovative approaches. Quite legitimate [although, let’s face it, not every organization is as open to change as it claims.] And it is correct that many above a certain age are no longer thinking creatively, or out of the box, or are open to innovation. I agree that many of my peers are looking more toward their retirement future than that of the organizations they head – or, worse, should be!

However, I daresay that this is not a function of age. Not everyone below 30 is a change agent or out of the box thinker, and many above 55 are. Sure younger people may be more adept at such skills as social media, but a good executive knows how to fill gaps in his/her own skill set, and fosters an atmosphere where creativity can flourish. And, believe it or not, there are some pretty interesting and innovative and energetic not-so-young folk around. Moreover, in many cases, this is a time when professionals can focus on their work without concern with college tuitions, teen angst, or concerns with travel limitations – their life adjustment matters are pretty well settled.

3. They want to save money. More senior professionals cost more, they fear; younger ones can cost less. But, is this false efficiency? A seasoned executive might be better at staff retention, management, decision-making, and if relevant, fund-raising, so that, in fact, a higher salary may pay for itself many times over.

Or might there be room for creative compensation arrangements? A more senior person may prefer more official vacation time or have retained health insurance which would allow a hard-pressed nonprofit to work within budget restraints.

Moreover, a senior executive may see this as a final stage of a satisfying career. There are certainly efficiencies in not having to worry about a younger executive looking for the next step in a career – where the organization may well have to get into a competitive bidding war to keep this younger “catch.”

Let me pause here to be perfectly clear. Anyone who has read my earlier articles on Millenials and Gen Y knows that I believe that we are living in their world, no matter what our chronological age. You already know how I treasure how much I learn from those who are younger than I, whose perspectives are fresher than mine, and whose knowledge is newer than mine.

But it just seems wrong, and counterproductive, to assume that age alone should be the definition of eligibility. Any organization or foundation looking to hire staff is always making a calculated determination of every candidate of what learning curve will be least problematic. Hopefully, age alone will not be the hill too steep.


Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.