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Growing Younger: Youth recruitment in an aging nonprofit sector

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A rapidly aging Canadian workforce, coupled with a decline in birth rates, creates a looming challenge for employers across job sectors — that of replacing retirees. In the nonprofit world, where limited funds and job insecurity are inevitable, the mean age of employees has reached an unparalleled 43.3. Despite increased competition among young graduates in the workforce, recruiting young staff for nonprofits has become particularly difficult — and exceedingly pressing.

Last summer the HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector released a report entitled Growing Younger: Tapping into the Talents of Early Career Employees, which examined the dearth of young people applying to nonprofits. It cited a 2009 Ipsos Reid study that found only 2% of the 16 to 27-year-old Canadians surveyed viewed the nonprofit sector as a desirable field.

The report concluded that “Making a stronger recruitment pitch to young workers will not be sufficient to attract them to nonprofit organizations. Rather, structural changes will be necessary to meet young people’s expectations.”

Understanding youth

To understand the motivations of twenty somethings, managers must appreciate the nuances of Generation Y — a hyper-educated, technology-fed cohort, largely nurtured by parents who promoted self-esteem and entitlement.

In spite of these elements of privilege, Generation Y has struggled to establish careers in a climate of recession and job insecurity. They have been forced to develop a sense of resourcefulness — taking on freelance and short-term contracts, dabbling in various sectors and, increasingly, engaging in entrepreneurship.

While Growing Younger cites findings suggesting that job shortages and instability may push youth to the more secure private and government sectors, it also found that students who expressed an interest in the nonprofit sector were more likely to value making a positive social impact over high salary or job security.

This desire to make a social difference, coupled with an innovative approach to the workforce may be the reason more young people are initiating their own nonprofits, rather than seeking employment in an existing organization.

In order to attract youth, provide opportunities to those interested in the sector and explore structural improvements, managers might consider the advice of young people who have succeeded in establishing their own nonprofit organizations.

Going out on their own

Laura Reinsborough, founder of Not Far From The Tree, had never actually worked for a nonprofit before she started her own. In fact, she describes her foray into the sector as something of a fluke: “I came to found Not Far from the Tree from a pretty circuitous feels like it kind of happened by accident.”

But once Reinsborough stumbled upon the untended niche in Toronto, she threw herself into the cause.

While volunteering as a fruit picker for the Spadina Museum orchard, Reinsborough noticed an abundance of unpicked fruit trees throughout Toronto.

She decided to exploit the momentum building amongst the Spadina orchard volunteers and start a project that would see volunteers pick and responsibly share fruit among people in the community. With roughly 700 volunteers, NFFT employs a method of splitting the bounty from residential fruit trees three ways. One third is shared among volunteers, one third is offered to the tree owner and one third is donated and delivered via bicycle to food banks, shelters and community kitchens.

For Alexis Kane Speer, founder of The STEPS Initiative, the nonprofit world was an escape from a more academic job. She wanted to apply her research skills to a tangible venue that would engage people with local public space. After scanning Canadian nonprofits, Kane Speer realized “there was a gap that needed to be filled and...instead of finding some network to tap into, I needed to create the network.”

She created STEPS to promote the use of art as a way of connecting people to their local environments. STEPS researches and publicizes undocumented grassroots initiatives that use art and public space to enliven communities.

Ricken Patel founded Avaaz, a global web movement that uses people-powered politics to campaign for social and political change. He started Avaaz because he was unable to find an existing organization that addressed the unique need to “organize across borders” and mobilize support for global issues.

Recruiting and education

Although 38% of young people use the Internet as a primary resource for seeking jobs, there is a shortage of both online and print information about nonprofits targeted at youth, as well as insufficient employment centre resources in universities.

Kane Speer addresses this, saying her university career centre failed to address the diversity of the nonprofit sector.

“My career centre had a library for different fields and I’m pretty sure that there was [one] binder for the entire nonprofit sector. As if you could contain the nonprofit sector into a two-inch three ring binder.”

For Patel, a shift in the culture of Canadian higher education is a key factor contributing to youth disinterest in nonprofits. He suggests that an institution that once favoured classics and humanities now prioritizes skills that serve a direct economic purpose — and that this lessens interest in the public life of a city.

“Our universities are producing an economy, but not a polis — a body of service — and are not sparking the imagination and passions and drive of young people to get involved in the public life of their country...the pull of people who want to make a difference is being hurt by the prevailing vocationalism of our educational system.”


Kane Speer’s experiences have taught her that it is challenging to progress in the nonprofit world without prior connections. For her, a pre-existing relationship with the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) has made a real difference; the CSI supports STEPS by donating free use of their office space.


Kane Speer knows that not everyone is so fortunate. “You need to be really proactive in forming personal connections with individuals in order to access resources from them.” She suggests that sector managers create formal networking opportunities for youth, in order to give individuals lacking professional connections a chance to enter the field.

Challenges and recommendations

Though still in her twenties herself, Reinsborough struggles to provide employment opportunities for youth and also support existing staff. With eight staff on board and a picking record of roughly 20,000 pounds of fruit from 220 trees, NFFT has received no shortage of praise from local media.

This past year, Reinsborough was able to hire four youth interns for the six-month picking season. In spite of much success, however, Reinsborough is striving to expand the program across Toronto and to find further funding to match NFFT’s growing needs.

She asserts that grants for young people to work in nonprofits are often available, but it’s another thing altogether to find the money and time for already overworked staff to provide the necessary mentorship.

She recommends that funding for youth be matched by funding of a mentor or supervisor.

For Kane Speer, something young people have that more established employees may lack is a tendency to conceive of projects 'cross-sectorally'. She says the mindset among nonprofits is often to compartmentalize issues and compete, rather than collaborate, but that forming strategic partnerships is beneficial.

“I definitely think that young people are thinking creatively in terms of that cross-sectoral stuff — people are creating organizations that haven’t existed in the past, which is kind of these melted blends of environmental, social and the arts.”

Kane Speer warns that with limited resources and an increasingly connected world, existing nonprofits need to adapt to a more dynamic and collaborative mentality.

“Funders might look at new cross-sectoral stuff and say, 'well, these projects are a bit more innovative and it might be more strategic for us to put our money in them, like maybe we’re getting more bang for our buck.'”

In addition to creating networking opportunities for youth and expanding university career resources, Kane Speer suggests that the issue of poor youth recruitment be addressed creatively.

She acknowledges the reality of limited funds within the sector. However, she says if substantial compensation cannot be offered monetarily, nonprofit managers should seek to offer alternative forms of recompense. This could range from flexible hours to the opportunity to work remotely or offering discounted services from partnered organizations.

Patel points to a negative dynamic often found in the nonprofit world — something that can hinder its success and deter youth applicants.

He says that, because individuals who work for nonprofits are typically underpaid, there can be a tendency to view their work as an act of self-expression, or to put personal values ahead of the organization’s mission. This comes at the expense of professionalism and is detrimental to the organization and the sector as a whole.

“You get a lot more drama in the nonprofit sector than I think you do in the private sector. And drama constrains the effectiveness of organizations and restricts their funds.”

He asserts that increased professionalism in the sector should lead to better effectiveness across the range of funders, managers, staff and stakeholders. Further, young people interested in making a difference will be drawn to places that are sufficiently effective and professional to achieve what they set out to do.

Looking to the future

For the problem of youth recruitment to be addressed, nonprofits must work both on how they market and appeal to young people — through universities, online and print marketing and through publicizing formal networking opportunities — as well as on structural reforms that will make organizations more professional and efficient.

If limited funding and job insecurity are inevitable, then nonprofit managers should seek to emulate some of the resourcefulness and creativity of the youth they seek to attract. In this way, nonprofits can become more dynamic in how they motivate and compensate staff, in forming strategic partnerships with other organizations and in appealing to funders from a broader, more cross-sectoral perspective.

Jodie Shupac is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She contributes to a range of publications, covering culture, urban issues, health and the environment.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other web sites and e-mail addresses may no longer be accurate.

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