Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Can Our Associations Change if Our Boards are Past the “Adventure Window?”

A tweeted link to a Forbes article [Why Do We Always Sell the Next Generation Short]?  led to more information and some thinking on how this topic impacts associations and nonprofit organizations.

The articles cited a neuroscientist studying “why humans (indeed, all mammals) have an innate tendency to lose their willingness to try new things after a certain point in their lives” called this our “adventure window.” 

Why is it, the neuroscientist wondered, that our willingness to try new things (our “adventure window”) fades rapidly after a certain point in life? Unfortunately, science can’t provide us with all the answers here, but his research and that of others suggests that there exists something deep within our psyche that relishes novelty and experimentation when we are young, but firmly rejects it as we grow older. 

The English satirist Douglas Adams put it this way: “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

What does this all mean for trade associations, professional societies, charitable foundations and other nonprofits?

The focus starts with our volunteer boards. If our boards are composed of “older” volunteers who have passed their “adventure window,” how likely are they to accept or demand new programs and services for younger members/donors and potential members/donors?

If board members past their adventure window are not able to see the different needs/values of the vast numbers of Generation X and Gen Y populations, how will our associations and nonprofits adapt to new programs and benefits?

Next, what about our staffs? If the chief executive has passed her/his adventure window, how can we expect the association or nonprofit to develop innovative new ideas to submit to the board of directors?

As Boomers age (1 person is turning 65 every 8 seconds) and retire out of our organizations, our success depends on recruiting members and donors of younger generations.

Well, if our boards and/or senior staff are not willing to look at the differing expectations of young prospects, how do we plan to replace “aging out” Boomer members?


  1. Steve, thanks for pointing to this research. I listened to the NPR interview with Professor Sapolsky, and I would ask a different question than you:

    How do we design boards that value the future?

    Beyond the brain chemistry that makes it harder for all mammals to try new things as they age, there are psychological factors for humans to overcome. According to the Sapolsky interview, people who spend a great deal of time in the same job and become very successful in that job become the most conservative over time.

    This finding should not come as a great surprise, of course, and yet these two factors perfectly describe the vast majority of people who serve on association boards. Quite understandably, we seek to populate our boards with eminent leaders. Unfortunately, these highly accomplished people are far less likely to question the very conventional wisdom that is the foundation of their success.

    The opportunity going forward is to be very intentional in designing boards that are less concerned about their own needs and prerogatives, and more concerned about what happens when their service is long over. In other words, we need boards that can govern from an "it's not about us" point of view, and focus instead on adopting a holistic perspective and an action orientation for building toward the future.

  2. Jeff,

    Love -- and agree with -- your thoughtful comments.

    My post "Challenges of Narrow-Minded Board Members: OMG, I am One!" (http://bit.ly/y4U5CC) discussed your point ... that board's should not be framing issues from "it's about us."

    Thanks for reading and sharing.