Reflections on talent: an intergenerational perspective


John Cawley and Sophie Silkes


I (John Cawley) am over 60. I am looking forward to transitioning out of my highly-stimulating but often all-consuming VP position but I am not ready to ‘retire.’

As the poet David Whyte has suggested, ‘To have a firm persuasion in our work – to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time … provides us with a sense of belonging, a conversation with something larger than ourselves, a felt participation, and a touch of spiritual fulfillment.’ I want to continue discovering and shaping community in ways that are consistent with my inner journey.

As a somewhat-recent graduate, the Social Innovation Fellowship came at a perfect time for me (Sophie Silkes). Throughout my years in university and then one year in a full-time position in the philanthropic sector, I had become accustomed to a frenetic schedule of work, night classes, volunteering, and dedicated ‘network-building’ as a primary extracurricular activity.

Joining the foundation last year was a life-altering occasion for me, and marked the synthesis of years dedicated to developing my passions into skillsets, cultivating a network of mentors in the Montreal community sector, and supporting myself. This fellowship position represented the first time that I had ever been remunerated for what previously I had considered my volunteer ‘passion work’ – developing and implementing support for local and sustainable food systems.


In the coming decade, tens of thousands of senior managers will retire from their positions within community sector organizations in Canada. There will be talent shortages unless we diversify our sources of recruitment and experiment with new forms of organizing work to include fluid teams, and explore innovative ways of engaging people in more flexible and generative ways.

On an annual basis, 300,000 young people in Canada undertake unpaid internships as a way of bridging the gap between their studies and paid employment. Too many internships exploit young people by working them to the bone on menial tasks while suppressing wages for entry level positions.

Social Innovation Fellowships

In recognition of these intergenerational challenges, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has introduced two cohorts of Social Innovation Fellowships. Senior fellows are often nearing the end of their careers or are at a transition point, moving out of senior operations positions. By engaging them on selected projects where they can function as wise elders to the staff of the foundation, these fellows share their experience and contacts without having the burden of managing the initiatives. For the senior fellows, it is an opportunity to mentor others and to reflect and articulate what they have learned about social change. A couple of examples:

  • Someone with decades of experience as an intrapreneur within universities has been invaluable to our RECODE program, helping us to navigate the politics and culture of post-secondary institutions
  • A former senior bureaucrat, known for successfully launching disruptive innovation within government, is mentoring us about how to make the case to government about the cost-effectiveness of early intervention

At the same time, the foundation has engaged a cohort of younger, paid Social Innovation Fellows. The objective is to support them in learning about the application of social innovation approaches such as social finance, developmental evaluation, and social labs through a year immersed in one of the foundation initiatives. These fellowships are designed to be a springboard for future engagement in the community or philanthropic sector as staff or board members.

For example, I (Sophie) have spent the past year developing high-level research projects, managing a portfolio of grants, and driving communications efforts. While it is hard to imagine a 24-year-old being hired for a full-time position with these responsibilities at the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, I was fortunate to land in a unique role that allowed me to both take on significant responsibility and set complementary learning goals. Positions such as these permit foundations and community organizations to develop the skills and aptitudes of promising early-stage professionals and to influence their career trajectories.

In creating a suite of positions for both ‘senior’ Social Innovation Fellows and their earlier stage counterparts, the foundation is inviting creative disruption by weaving practiced wisdom and new perspectives into the inner workings of the organization itself. In valuing both of these generations’ experiences, I see the foundation as living out a particular reverence for intergenerational exchange, and other organizations working in the world of systems change might be able to similarly enrich their work by developing similar fellowship programs.  Once again, David Whyte manages to capture the essence of what truly meaningful work can bring about in this excerpt from Consolations:
‘Perhaps the greatest legacy we can leave from our work is not to instill ambition in others, though this may be the first way we describe its arrival in our life, but the passing on of a sense of sheer privilege, of having found a road, a way to follow, and then having been allowed to walk it, often with others, with all its difficulties and minor triumphs; the underlying primary gift of having been a full participant in the conversation.’

This blog post was co-authored by John Cawley, vice president of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and Sophie Silkes, head of business development and community at Crew Collective and Café. The post was written as part of a global talent blog series by Global Social Entrepreneurship Network (UK) and the BMW Foundation (Germany), running between 7th-21st of July 2017.

The series involved 25 interviews and over 50 survey responses. Global Social Entrepreneurship and the BMW Foundation also worked together with more than fifty intermediaries, including Big Society Capital and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. The series features perspectives on talent within the social impact sector and best practices and tools to obtain, develop, and retain employees within the sector.

This post is part of a talent project led by the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network (GSEN, founded by UnLtd) and supported by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. The project aims to shed light on challenges and solutions related to the attraction, development, and retention of talent within entrepreneur support organizations.

The September 2017 issue of Alliance looks at diversity and the extent to which those working in philanthropy reflect the communities they serve. Read more about upcoming features in Alliance here.


Tagged in: BMW Foundation Crew Collective and Café Global Social Entrepreneurship Network J.W. McConnell Family Foundation Social Innovation Fellowship

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