Ageism in the nonprofit sector: Confronting the issue of age discrimination

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Currently sixty-three years old, Andrew Czerwinski spent 40 odd years working in the nonprofit sector. Three years ago, the funding allocated for his job at an organization was terminated, and, consequently, so was his position. Although he currently runs a nonprofit consultancy, Czerwinski has spent the past several years trying to reenter the sector as an employee; so far, his efforts have been in vain.

Since 2010, he’s applied to 96 different positions, mostly to be an executive director or senior manager; despite vying for roles that he says are highly similar to ones he’s held in the past — jobs he feels exceedingly qualified for — he’s only made it to the interview stage about 10% of the time.

Czerwinski frankly maintains that employers aren’t willing to give him the time of day because of his age— which can quite easily be presumed by looking at the year he got a Master’s degree, listed on his resume.

“No one owes me a position, but I think I’m entitled to an interview if I’m qualified for something. I know in my heart of hearts that I’ve applied to positions where I’ve had the skills hands down—some were almost identical to jobs I’d done for years...I can only surmise that I didn’t go further because my age was an issue.”

Czerwinski feels he’s been the target of ageism — the phenomenon wherein an individual is discriminated against because of age.

Ageism in context

With the population of Canada aging rapidly and Baby Boomers increasingly remaining in the workforce well into their sixties, ageism in the workplace is not uncommonly cited by seniors as an obstacle to getting hired, or as the reason for unfair treatment on the job.

In 2012, Nova Scotia Community Links, a provincial nonprofit association made up of over 280 organizations that serve senior citizens, published Age Friendly Workplaces in the Nonprofit Sector. The report contains data compiled primarily from nonprofit sector employees and employers, and gives recommendations for positioning the nonprofit sector as an age-friendly workplace.

According to “Age Friendly Workplaces,” 40% of the Canadian population is comprised of people aged 45 to 64, while those aged 65 and older make up another 14%; this is expected to rise to 22% by 2026. In Nova Scotia, the province with the oldest population in Canada, those numbers skew higher.

In light of the imminent surge of retirements expected to sweep the Canadian labour force as the more senior Baby Boomers retire, the report examines how the nonprofit sector can both retain and attract older workers. It emphasizes the importance of the sector being able compete with others for what will soon be a smaller pool of skilled workers, and underlines the value of employing older workers:

“Very consistent responses indicate employers view older workers as having many positive workplace characteristics beyond specific skills, such as strong work ethic, dependability, reliability, employer loyalty, and a lifetime of work experience.”

Though the nonprofit sector is generally known as an inclusive, socially conscious space, it isn’t free of age discrimination — even if the latter isn’t experienced overtly.

The report finds that, in Nova Scotia, 65% of nonprofit employers don’t offer pension plans, and more than 30% don’t offer benefit packages — compensations that are often of particular value and necessity to older workers.

While providing benefits can be challenging for many resource-strapped nonprofits, the report demonstrates how important it is to do so. It finds that skilled, older workers leave nonprofit work for three main reasons:

  • The employer can’t offer a competitive wage and/or benefits package
  • The demands of the job are too stressful
  • The employer can’t offer flexible work arrangements

Clearly, these types of incentives are crucial for many older workers.

Ageism and Millennials

Of course, ageism doesn’t just refer to older individuals. It can be felt quite keenly by younger workers, many of whom are striving to enter the workforce, and to be taken seriously.

Erin Kang, 23, is the events coordinator and community membership animator at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation. The youngest full-time staff member, Kang says age isn’t an issue with her team, but that with clients, “the first impression is sometimes marred by my age.”

She perceives that that, plus what she calls her “bubbly voice and personality,” leads some clients to take her less seriously, or to feel they must double check information she gives them with her supervisors.

John Suart, who runs a nonprofit consultancy, says that, while he’s never witnessed overt age discrimination in the sector, demographic shifts mean individuals at both ends of the age spectrum are disadvantaged where access to work in the nonprofit sphere is concerned.

Because the sector is dominated by Baby Boomers and resources in the field are, of late, particularly tight, there have been fewer opportunities for young people to enter organizations. When they do, it’s typically on a part-time or contract basis.

“When the Boomers actually leave,” Suart says, “the bulk of which will happen in the next four or five years, we’re going to have a bit of a sticky wicket in the sector, because young people haven’t been given that permanency to explore it...we need to be like every other sector and start talking about cultivating young people to take the place of the Boomers when they go.”

Suart notes older workers also fall prey to the limitations of part-time and contract work on offer.

“If you’re older and have a house, car and kids that need to go to university and all you can get is contract work, that’s a tough sell to join the nonprofit sector.”

Success stories

Of course, awareness about ageism is growing, and many nonprofits are actively striving to defy it through hiring practices, HR policies and the cultivation of open and positive workplace cultures.

Kang, despite feeling some discomfort around her age where certain clients are concerned, credits the relative youthfulness of the Centre for Social Innovation staff (many employees are under 30) for bringing a refreshing sense of energy to the work their fast-growing organization is doing.

“[W]hile we’re experiencing growing pains and capacity issues, it’s been nice to have a presence that is excited about changes and to take on all this work...this is received quite well from our older staff members.”

Siobhan Aspinall is the senior manager of development at Junior Achievement of British Columbia, a nonprofit that teaches business education to elementary and high school students. Having worked in the charitable and private sectors, Aspinall says she’s witnessed ageism in both — sometimes manifested in staff having an issue with another employee who is “getting on in years,” then grumbling that said person should retire.

Still, she notes that Junior Achievement is a “success story of different generations working together.” Her small office staff of about 11 spans a diverse age spread, with Generation X, Y and Boomers represented. Forty-five and falling somewhere in the middle, Aspinall observes the positive impact.

Her boss, nearly 20 years her senior, brings to the table her years of experience, extensive knowledge of the clients and donors and a sense of conservativeness, while Aspinall is more of a risk-taker.

“We almost have a good cop, bad cop dynamic when we go to client meetings — it works quite well...we’ll visit donors together and I’ll be pushing for them to make an increase or a longer commitment, while she’s the one cautiously advising us not to rock the boat on a longstanding relationship...[our age difference] works especially well at the corporate table...a younger person might connect more with me, and a Boomer age person might connect with my boss.”

Further, Aspinall says their Millennial staff contribute a welcome energy and an ability to multitask.

“It’s inspiring...they can make 100 phone calls an hour, while Skyping and posting things on social media — I find I need more of an organized day, and my boss, even more so.”

Dee Ann Benard is executive director at the Alberta Rural Development Network, a tiny not-for-profit in Alberta that works with the province’s post-secondary institutions to promote rural development. Their staff of five includes at least one person from each decade: from early 20s to late 50s, plus consultants in their 60s.

Though hiring across generations is not an explicitly deliberate move, ARDN has implemented policies and programs that invite and accommodate workers on either end of the age spectrum. Several years ago, they brought on two extremely young people (one was 19) through a now defunct government student temporary employment program. The students were mentored, and ultimately brought “a whole new perspective and different level of energy;” after the program ended, they were hired in a permanent capacity.

ARDN also offers a comprehensive benefits package — including flexible hours, matching RRSP contributions and disability benefits — that Benard says benefits all workers, but may be especially appealing for workers over 40.

She says ARND values its older workers and the way they balance Millennial staff: “They bring a real wealth of experience and they know what’s been done before...when you combine that with the exciting energy of younger people, you really get that full picture.”

Recommendations for a non-ageist sector

Age Friendly Workplaces, the report published by Nova Scotia Community Links, emphasizes a need for more nonprofits to implement attraction and retention strategies for older workers. These include: pre-retirement programs, more options for flexible work hours, more job sharing options, access to training dollars to foster skills development, a lower tax rate for nonprofit employees, and a portable pension and benefits package that can move with an employee from nonprofit to nonprofit.

In addition to establishing formal training programs for Millennials wishing to enter the sector, Suart recommends that organizations resist hiring on an exclusively part-time or contract basis.

“The whole economy is moving that way, but we should slow down a bit...we’re going to lose skills and people...even though offering full-time employment is a big commitment for an agency, it has advantages over time.”

Aspinall notes that quashing sector ageism is no different from dispelling other kinds of conflicts, insofar as much of it boils down to management needing to step up and smooth over discord — “to help people of different backgrounds understand each other.”

According to Benard, organizations need to rethink their resistance to hiring seniors. She says many don’t want to for two reasons: they think older workers won’t stick around that long, and they assume older folks lack energy.

Countering this, she emphasizes that, in today’s labour market, “you don’t know if anyone is going to stick around [at a job], so be happy if you can get anyone for 3 or 4 years.”

She says energy is an extremely individual quality, one not necessarily tied to age.

“You can tell right when you meet someone what their energy level is…also, wisdom and experience often compensate for a little less energy. Someone really energetic but inexperienced can result in lost time, whereas someone really experienced and wise with a little less energy might not get as far [as quickly], but will [ultimately] be more productive.”

She also suggests that organizations stack their teams with older and younger workers, then get the former to mentor the latter.

With an underwhelming economy and a labour market that must prepare and embrace Millennials while simultaneously accommodating Boomers who need to retire later, ageism is a topic warranting serious attention.

For the nonprofit as well as other sectors, understanding what ageism looks like and how it can be combated — both from a hiring and a job retention standpoint — will prove critical to ensuring the sector offers inclusive and inviting workplaces for people across the age spectrum.

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

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