July 21, 2009

I'm lost in the valley

Your “young leaders” grow up to be “leaders”, who then grow up to be “visionaries”, or some other categorical definition. Stop inventing new categories and further segmenting your donors, staff, and other stakeholders. Approach your people seamlessly, or you risk loosing them in the valleys between defined categories.

One of my clients has a “young leaders” donors group, modeled after the New York Public Library’s well-known Young Lions program. Two women, college roommates, joined at the same time. One woman, unmarried and non-parenting, remains in the group, quite active. The other, married, homeowner, with two small children, feels she no longer fits the membership profile and has left. Neither does she share the financial or professional profile of the organization’s formal Board of Directors. Her engagement with the organization is threatened by her lack of fitting into one of their tightly defined subgroups.

I’m no longer young. Nor am I old. Where, exactly, do I fit in? Where are my thoughts and experiences valued? Nonprofit organizations, leadership programs, even retail promotional offers: many fail to offer me a special place or preferred access. Too many institutions are letting their relationship with me wane. As a result, they will have to expend enormous energy and resources to engage me once again, as I climb the curve back up into their tightly defined category.

Such peaks and valleys of membership also limit inter-category conversations: young learning from old. Knowledge fails to be shared, and opportunities for mentoring, and for innovation are lost.

Be careful not to be seduced by the short-term gains of segmentation: think about the benefits of continuity, and the sustainability of your goals and objectives. What would it look like if your organization truly valued what every stakeholder was thinking?

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