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Looking for the Next Generation of Leaders

By Tom Watson on May 23, 2007No Comment

Looking for the Next Generation of Leaders
By Joan Baldwin

The issues raised in onPhilanthropy’s What’s Driving Young Professionals from the Nonprofit Sector were familiar ones to the Museum Association of New York (MANY), who wrote a white paper on the topic, Who’s Next?:  Questioning the Future of Museum Leadership in New York State, last year.  In an increasingly competitive professional landscape, one in which the number of those poised to retire outweighs the number of those prepared to take their place, recruitment, retention, and professional development are hot-button topics within all sectors… including the art world. 

So what specifically did MANY find en route to writing Who’s Next?  Through in-house surveys and feedback from a series of focus groups that included emerging and current leaders, graduate students, and graduate program administrators, MANY learned that GenXers (those born between 1961 and 1981) were hung up on the leadership question.  One GenX participant suggested that individuals with five to seven years experience who wanted leadership positions had to choose between leading very small organizations and leaving the field altogether.  For GenXers and Millennials (those born after 1981 and before 2002), salaries and diversity were sticking points in discussions about leadership. Participants in these age groups felt that any hope of diversifying New York State’s museum field hinged directly on generational turnover and salary.

Surprisingly, younger participants were not turned off by the hard work, high stress, and constant fundraising demands currently put on those in leadership positions; rather, the seeming lack of professional opportunities and unclear career paths were viewed as deterrents to staying in the field.  Stagnant salary levels were also mentioned. 
Everyone, from the Millennial to the Boomer, acknowledged that the role of the executive director has changed.  Focus groups described the position in a flurry of metaphors: quarterback, conductor, chief. While museum and historical society directors used to move up through the ranks, ultimately claiming the CEO position after years in the field, directors today often arrive with years of experience from outside the sector. 

While some participants felt that the resulting breadth of experience one gained as the lone director at a small organization was worth the stress, most agreed that it is incumbent on these smaller organizations to be particularly sensitive and supportive in the areas of professional development and networking.

As the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) survey reported, MANY learned that many current directors feel unprepared for their positions, and mid-career training was a recurring theme in all discussions. Participants said it was, and is, an unaddressed need. Apart from the obvious benefits of acquiring new skills, mid-career education also provides participants with mentors and peers with whom they can learn. While the museum world has several nationally known leadership training programs, they require major financial commitments, as well as the ability to take a month or more away from work.

So what does MANY plan to do to address these challenges?  Its white paper concludes with an agenda to build a strong leadership base for New York State’s museums and heritage organizations.  It has partnered with the state’s museum service agencies, as well as regional and national associations, in presenting panel discussions, and publishing articles on the topic.  It is currently gathering information on the issue of transition planning, a key component of attracting, mentoring, and keeping the next generation of leaders. 

The museum world is about collections…their care, their interpretation and their preservation. But it is also about people.  By anticipating a possible leadership void, by talking about it and taking proactive steps to address it, the museum community can better prepare for the future it faces. 

The Museum Association of New York is a member-based service and advocacy organization that brings the collective contributions and issues of museums and heritage organizations to the attention of New York State residents and policy makers. The 2006 white paper, “Who’s Next?”, can be downloaded from MANY’s website at

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