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Engaging the next generation: Attracting millennials to work in the nonprofit sector

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In 1980, at the same time that the identity of Luke Skywalker’s father was revealed to the world, the first of what would be called the millennial generation was born. This generation has now grown to adulthood and accounts for nearly half the employees in the world — but the question now is whether this group will choose to work in the nonprofit sector rather than going over to the dark side.

All jokes and movie references aside, the impending sea change of leadership in the nonprofit sector requires an influx of talent from younger generations. David Hutchinson, president and CEO of search firm The Hutchinson Group notes that, “The younger boomer and Generation Xers weren’t directed into the charitable space the way some older, senior leaders were. Many were directed to the private sector, leaving the nonprofit sector with half the talent pool to choose from.” This means that the sector needs the emerging millennial generation to fill the gap.

But is the nonprofit sector attracting — and attractive to — a younger generation? CharityVillage talked with a number of people whose organizations are addressing this recruitment challenge, as well as with young professionals themselves, about how the sector can better engage students and new graduates.

What’s a millennial?

While defining a generation is an exercise in generalization, generally speaking, the millennials are the cohort born between 1980 and 2000. Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe say typical millennials are “special”, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured and achieving.

Work is one key area where millennials differ from the generations that have preceded them. In a LinkedIn article, millennial Lydia Abbott writes, “Millennials aren’t as willing as former generations to sacrifice their personal life in order to advance their careers. They like to ‘work hard – play hard’ and want to be at a company that appreciates this desire for balance. They also expect a more flexible work environment than previous generations and want to work for a company that supports various causes.” A Harvard Business Review article adds that because millennials view work as a key part of life, “they place a strong emphasis on finding work that is personally fulfilling…[and] connect[ed] to a larger purpose.” The article also describes millennials as “the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s.”

This combination of traits makes millennials a natural choice for working in the nonprofit world but also means that attracting them can be challenging. The 2010 HR Council report on millennials concludes that “simply making a stronger recruitment pitch to young workers will not be sufficient to attract them to nonprofit organizations.”

Whether the millennial generation is attracted to work in the nonprofit sector is up for debate. The 2013 Millennial Impact Research Report indicated that 72 percent of millennials were eager to join a nonprofit organization but a 2009 Ipsos Reid survey found that only 2% of this group identified the nonprofit sector as a preferred field in which to pursue a career. A 2015 survey of high school students by the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative (YPI) found that 65 percent of them would not consider a job or career in the charitable sector. Both the YPI survey and a recent survey by the Peel Children and Youth Initiative, however, found that millennial perception of the charitable sector is very positive, even if they don't see it as a viable career option.

Aren’t they all volunteers?

Why is there this disconnect? Some of it surely has to do with misperceptions about the sector.

The very name itself can be a challenge. Digital media producer Madison Cawker says, “The word ‘nonprofit’ can scare people away.’ Tana Del Matto agrees. The director of Green House, a social entrepreneurship incubator at the University of Waterloo, Del Matto says, “The title ‘nonprofit’ describes what we aren’t – we should use a name that says what we are."

Del Matto believes there’s room for significant education about the nonprofit sector and how it operates. “We need to demystify the myths of sector — that there can be profits reinvested back in mission and mandate, for instance, and that the not-for-profit sector can be an economic engine.” Sam Thiara, founder of Vancouver-based GradusOne, an organization helping students and graduates take the next step in their career path, agrees. “Most people think nonprofits are not sustainable, that you can’t build a career, that they don’t pay well. There’s so much opportunity people don’t realize because of misunderstandings of what nonprofits are.”

Krista Murray, communications manager for the Peel Children and Youth Initiative, has faced misunderstandings about the sector throughout her career. “My family has always been supportive but I think a lot of acquaintances and friends don’t understand what I do. Oh, nonprofit — do you get paid? Isn’t that volunteer work? They also perceive that the sector is grassroots, volatile and temporary — that it doesn’t offer a serious career path.”

The stereotypical view of a nonprofit operating on a shoestring budget with minimal employees is also very much alive, even among millennials. Holly McLellan, international director of programming for the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative, says that students only learn fragmented bits and pieces about the sector, as opposed to developing a full understanding of its value alongside the other sectors, and so tend to reflect the more prevailing societal perception that charity employees are expected to sacrifice. “They don’t say outright that people shouldn’t be paid a living wage, but many seem to reflect the belief that a charity should put all its money into programs without having a full appreciation of what it takes to do its work.”

Tap into the gathering spots

But to educate an emerging generation, organizations must engage them in the places where they gather and the in the ways in which they communicate.

Thiara says “It’s important to keep up to date with technology and the sites where millennials are active, like LinkedIn.” He adds that there are a number of organizations — such as the Vancouver Board of Trade’s Company of Young Professionals — where nonprofits can begin conversations about employment with keen young graduates.

Another place to connect with students and recent graduates is at university job fairs. Hutchinson says, “Law firms, banks and consultancies are all at university career fairs, looking for graduates. Why don’t charities do that?” Even if charities aren’t hiring at the time of a career fair, being at the event helps create awareness.

Thiara also suggests nonprofits consider developing business case competitions, inviting universities, colleges and technical schools to send teams to compete. Not only does such a competition encourage creative problem solving but it also raises the profile of the sponsoring organization, and gives competitors experience in engaging with the sector.

Tell your story

Once you’ve figured out where the millennials are, the next step is to tell your story. People have always gravitated toward stories, but never more so than now. Research shows that 88% of millennials look first at an organization’s “About Us” page on its website. Del Matto says that organizations that want to resonate with younger people should tell their story — and also communicate the impact of what they’re doing. Being able to see impact is what draws millennials to a nonprofit, whether as a donor, volunteer or employee. Thiara encourages nonprofits to include the stories or profiles of dynamic champions within the organization, so that people can relate to and emulate those people. The HR Council’s Growing Younger report says that material promoting careers in the sector should include personal narratives about how individuals developed their careers, as well as factual descriptions of occupations and careers, and should represent people of different ethnicities, ages and genders.

Provide opportunities for meaningful work and innovation

According to McLellan, there is an untapped opportunity for engagement.“From our experience, conditions can be created for authentic engagement with the sector. The young people we work with respond to authenticity and real responsibility, experiences that are structured and supported by adult allies, but which are largely self-directed in small purposeful teams. We've seen a 25% increase in youth who report that they would consider a career in the sector after they had the opportunity to build a relationship directly with a local charity of their choice, and the professionals who work there.”

Colleen Kelly, co-author of The Abundant Not-for-Profit, offers another advantage to working in the nonprofit sector: “The ability to have a decision-making role in a career can take ten years in the corporate world but it often comes quickly in a not-for-profit. This matters to a lot of millennials.” Cheryl Stone, communications coordinator for the Mississauga Arts Council, agrees. She describes a nonprofit internship that offered “real experience — I was writing social media content on day one.” Kristin Diaz, Edmonton based facilitator advises nonprofits to carefully consider job titles “because they can make or break career growth.”

Del Matto says, “Millennials are a wave of young people who want creative control. Organizations that have been around for a while might have to change things up to adapt to that new way of thinking.” We took this issue to Twitter and found much agreement. Many users echoed this sentiment, saying that millennials are attracted to nonprofits that give them a voice and the opportunity to share their innovative ideas. They also noted that some nonprofits seem to be afraid or reluctant to embrace ideas of youth or to give them meaningful work.

Focus on people first

Nonprofits may not have a competitive advantage when it comes to salary but the sector actually has enormous opportunities in attracting young workers. Kelly points out that, “If you create an organization that has a focus on people first, millennials will gravitate toward it.” This reflects the expressed desires of millennials for benefits, ongoing professional development and flexible working arrangements. Murray points to other benefits as well: “The nonprofit sector offers an attractive work environment compared to corporate opportunities. It’s also work that has a strong alignment with my values.” Developing these workplace values can also help retain staff of all generations.

While one stumbling block to younger people entering the sector is the flat structure of many organizations, Kelly suggests that people are “hugely motivated by the opportunity to learn.” The Growing Younger report encourages organizations to look at creative educational options such as short-term secondments, peer networks that offer professional development workshops and opportunities to learn about the work of other nonprofits, and mentoring and leadership development programs. Mentoring does not have to be the traditional passing on of wisdom from the older person to the younger, either. Some organizations engage in “reverse mentoring” where a junior employee is assigned to teach a senior executive how to use social media, for instance, but also gains insight from the more senior staff. Other options include group mentoring, micro-feedback, peer-to-peer mentoring, virtual mentoring and anonymous mentoring.

Money and the Bank of Mom and Dad

Money is perhaps the elephant in the room when it comes to millennials. Many believe that millennials come to adulthood with a sense of entitlement, particularly when it comes to salaries, but there are a number of factors that reveal that money is a very real concern for this generation:

  • Between 2000 and 2010, the national Consumer Price Index rose 22% but in the same period, tuition fees increased an average of 51%
  • The average Canadian university graduate has $27,000 in student debt
  • The youth unemployment rate in 2014 was 13.9%
  • Virtually half of 15-24 year olds are working in jobs such as sales, service and retail, while one in four millennials with a university degree is working in a low skill job

Added to this is the reality that, as youth employment lawyer Andrew Langille says, “The nonprofit sector is notorious for exploiting new grads and relying on precariously employed workers.” He adds, “That must change.”

Sean Geobey suggests, “Paid employment at a living wage is a start; possibility of career advancement would really sell [the sector].” Tammy Nh of Ottawa agrees. “Grads and young people I studied with are interested in the nonprofit sector; they just need to be paid.”

With these gloomy financial realities, another factor the perspective of their parents. These parents, often known as helicopter parents for their involved role even in the lives of adult children, have often invested financially in their children’s education. “University is a big investment,” says Del Matto, “and there’s now no guarantee that you will have a job upon graduation. There’s huge parental pressure on millennials to get a job.”

Manisha Narula, program director of GradusOne, is a new graduate herself. “I’ve seen a lot of people who are hesitant to take the risk to go into the nonprofit or social enterprise world. The corporate route looks more sustainable.”

Del Matto says it’s important to be able to articulate the value of working in the nonprofit sector from a career perspective — highlighting the hard and soft skills gained.

When Kelly started work in the nonprofit sector, she says most people fell into it. “Today, a lot of young people are choosing to go into the nonprofit world.” At the same time, it isn’t the same world as it was when The Empire Strikes Back first came out. The lines between sectors are blurring and organizations are changing due to a wide variety of factors. Kelly says not-for-profits that want to move forward in the new millennium need to learn from the example of service clubs that wanted to know how to get new members, but were continuing to operate in a way that worked for them forty years ago. “Recruitment was challenging for them because young people had grown up in a different era and didn’t connect with the way they worked. Have they all gone out of business? No, but a lot have.” Similarly, nonprofits that want to continue to play a vital role need to be responsive to the emerging generation.

The top 10 countdown of what attracts millennials to the nonprofit sector

We asked millennials themselves what organizations could do to better engage young people with the nonprofit sector. Here are their suggestions, from Twitter, in a top 10 countdown with number one being the most popular.

10. Strive for diversity in leadership
9. Offer flexibility in working arrangements
8. Use social media to tell your story
7. Offer benefits and more security
6. Explain more clearly the career opportunities that are available in the sector
5. Don’t be scared by youth—be open to new ideas and points of view
4. Offer real and meaningful experience: internships and co-ops that either pay or lead to jobs
3. Provide professional development opportunities
2. Offer actual entry level positions with room to grow and advance
1. Pay a living wage

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Photos (from top) via All photos used with permission.

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From the perspective of a millennial - Ms.Fish, fantastic advice !
The misunderstandings between the definition and role of a nonprofit is certainly an issue, alongside the fact that students do not get much exposure to the nonprofit world for the misconceptions to be clarified. Thus, the organizations need a presence on campus via student clubs & events as a starting point.

We want to be involved but don't always now how! I'd be happy to share more about reaching out to the campus community
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