Peter Benson, the long-time CEO of the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, died yesterday at the age of 65 after a year-long battle with colon cancer. Benson had gone on sabbatical last week to deal with his worsening condition.
Benson, who held a Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from the University of Denver, joined the nonprofit as a research scientist in 1978, leaving behind a job as chair of the psychology department at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. He had led the organization since 1985.
“His vision not only for young people but for the people who work with young people and the people who support them was addictive,” said Karen Pittman, CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, a Washington-based youth development organization.
Under Benson, Search Institute emerged as a major research and assistance entity for programs focusing on making positive youth development the focus of their work.
The Institute is perhaps best known for its promotion of “developmental assets,” a list of 40 assets that programs should strive to instill in youths. Over time, Search developed separate asset lists for four age ranges: 3 to 5, 5 to 9, 8 to 12 and 12 to 18.
In a more recent initiative, simply entitled “Sparks,” Search Institute scientists sought to identify the universe of desires that fueled young people to thrive, the hope being that those “sparks” could serve as the starting point for youth workers seeking to instill developmental assets in children.
“Spark is a life orientation … a way of being present in the world,” Benson told a crowd at a TEDx event in St. Paul, Minn., last April. “It may touch work, it may be work, it may be outside of work. It’s not the same thing as vocational planning, it’s about nurturing and naming what is in here .”
“I’m often introduced as the ‘grandmother of youth development,'” said Pittman. “If I’m the grandmother, Peter is the grandfather. I really can’t imagine finishing this journey without him.”
Benson was a columnist for Youth Today from 2005 until 2010. In his last column for the paper, in August of 2010, he expressed concern over the fragmentation of youth services into silos competing against one another for funding.
“If we were in any other business – say cell phones, bottled water or toilet paper – fighting for market share, brand differentiation and distinct advantage would be the way to go,” Benson wrote. “But when it comes to growing healthy, thriving young people, fragmentation is a recipe for failure.”
Gene Roehlkepartain, the Institute’s director of family strategies, will lead Search Institute as the board of directors decides on a permanent successor for Benson. The leadership team currently includes CFO Paul Kirst; Tim Showalter-Loch, vice president of strategic partnerships; and Nancy Alliegro, vice president of content development and sales.