3 ways to support the next generation of environmental leaders

We've been hearing for years that baby boomers are going to retire, leaving a void in the leadership of organizations. Well, that time is coming. And the Brainerd Foundation wants to make sure my generation is ready to take the reins.

The back story

For two decades, the Brainerd Foundation has invested in the capacity and leadership of environmental organizations to build power for conservation. As we trek towards our sunset in 2020, we are committed to strengthening the bench of new talent for the conservation movement. To help develop this initiative, Brainerd staff asked:

How can we best build the next generation of conservation leaders in the Northwest?

As a young professional working for a foundation run by baby boomers, I was intrigued, excited… and a wee bit overwhelmed by this question. And rather than pretending that my status as a quasi-Millennial meant I knew the answer, I suggested we do our homework.

The road traveled

Our first stop was introspection. We looked deep within and tried to tease out our assumptions about the barriers and gaps in the existing leadership pipeline. Then we drew up a plan to test those assumptions against reality. Along the way we tapped the wisdom of our funder friends (a big thanks to the folks at the Bullitt, Harder, and Wilburforce foundations), consulted experts, and interviewed 50 senior- and junior-level staff at 25 environmental and progressive organizations in the Northwest.

That's right, we spent over 50 hours listening to grantees.

We asked about career paths at environmental organizations, the needs of future conservation leaders, and how well nonprofit staffs and boards reflect the diversity of their communities. We also collected a bunch of data about each organization. All of this was analyzed against our initial assumptions.

The result of all this data gathering, number crunching, and hours of candid conversation is what we hope others will find to be an helpful report chock full of findings and recommendations.

Surprises galore

When we set out to launch an Emerging Leaders Initiative, we assumed that there weren't enough young people working for environmental organizations. We thought that a pipeline for bringing more young folks into the conservation movement was the top priority. Boy, were we wrong!

Instead we learned that plenty of young people already work for conservation groups. The big challenge is that most of them aren't being groomed and welcomed as leaders. They need better access to training, strong mentorships, and broader professional networks. And while environmental nonprofits know they need to diversify their staffs and boards, they are still figuring out how.

Infographic titled 3 ways to support next gen leaders

Top 3 opportunities for action

Okay, here's what you've been waiting for — our recommendations for strengthening the next generation of conservation leaders. As you might expect, there are many things the Brainerd Foundation could invest in, and yet we can't invest in everything. Thus, we narrowed it down to what we believe are the top three ways to cultivate the next generation of conservation leaders here in the Northwest.

1. Welcome new leaders.

Young people are coming in the door everyday and we can give them a warmer welcome. We can offer interns and fellows more mentoring, better professional development opportunities, pay commensurate with their contributions, and stronger connections to their peers. And we want them to build relationships with current environmental leaders who can help them find jobs and keep them engaged in (and excited about) the conservation movement.

2. Help them grow.

If young and diverse staffers at nonprofits are going to be strong environmental leaders, we need to invest in their development, give them leadership opportunities, and keep them in the movement. They need training and coaching beyond their current jobs, in areas such as fundraising, communications, personnel management, and organizational strategy. And as much as organizations might fear that their staff will outgrow them, studies show that millennials are more satisfied and stay longer at places that are committed to their development as leaders. The young folks we talked with couldn't agree more.

3. Be intentional about diversity and inclusion.

Younger generations are more diverse, and they expect and want to work alongside people who reflect the communities impacted by environmental issues. We can help by prioritizing leadership and networking opportunities for entry- and mid-level staff from diverse backgrounds. And foundations can recognize and support their grantees that are systematically working to increase the diversity of their staffs and boards, while making their organizations more inclusive and equitable.

What's Next?

More conversations. More partnerships. More investments. And you can help by sharing your thoughts and feedback right. We're listening…

Download the full report:

The Next Generation of Environmental Leaders: Opportunities for Investment and Action in the Northwest