Breaking Upward: A guide for Millennials and Gen Z nonprofit professionals who want to do more

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Compare CharityVillage’s job postings with those of ten or fifteen years ago and you’ll notice an increasing demand for qualifications. There are more and more Canadian programs offering certification in diverse aspects of the work of the nonprofit sector, as well as programs that are not specific to the sector, but which offer an opportunity to focus on the nonprofit world (such as MBA degrees with an option to study international development). The people coming into the nonprofit sector are eager to use their training and passion to make a difference in the world — only to find that, once they get in, they sometimes bump up against barriers to using those assets.

“Brooke” puts it this way: “There’s a reluctance to engage all the capacities a new addition might have. Often I’m pushed back into work that doesn’t challenge or interest me, even when I’ve succeeded. I’m not sure how to show my abilities without sounding boastful. Breaking upward is really tough.”

Because Brooke’s experience isn’t uncommon, we thought we would look at the phenomenon in an effort to help both the sector and the younger professionals working within it.

What this isn’t

It might appear that this is an unreasonable request on the part of Millennials and Generation Z, given funding challenges. However, Amy, also a nonprofit professional, believes it is in some part about funding and structure but also about worldview. “The head of the organization, namely BOD & executive director, has to be invested in developing and building up people at all levels in order to ensure the growth of leadership.’’ Brooke agrees. “I’m not in it for the money — I’m working in a nonprofit. I want to be put to the best use so that I can engage my skills and passions.”

The argument is also often made that there is little room for advancement because of the fairly flat hierarchical structure: more than half of Canadian nonprofits have fewer than five employees.

But often people start at a nonprofit in a position that isn’t in their area of education or interest, temporarily putting aside their skillset or passion to get their foot in the door, says Chantal Rackley, career advisor/facilitator, WorkBC Employment Services Centre – North Shore, YWCA Metro Vancouver.

Interestingly, the desire for “breaking upward” is more about reclaiming those skills and passions than it is about a title. “Justin” says, “If my job evolved to include my interests and to develop my skills in work that is slightly perpendicular to what I do, that would be great. I don’t need a better title.” Amy agrees. ‘’I feel that our skills may be more valued under a management that fosters more cross-functional collaborations within an organization.’’

It’s also argued that this issue faces every new generation: proving yourself in the workplace and biding your time until it’s your turn to lead. Alyssa Lai is the co-chair of the steering committee for the Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Connect the Sector, a group of young professionals working in the nonprofit and charitable sector, aimed at promoting an exchange of information and knowledge, and creating a community and space for young nonprofit workers to learn from one another. While Lai concurs that this has always been an issue, she argues that the increased complexity and connectivity in our world add to this challenge.

Mary Barroll, president of job site and online career resource for students and recent graduates TalentEgg, says, “It’s well-recognized that Millennials and Generation Z are characterized by a desire to be stimulated by their work, to see their impact not only in society but also in their organization, and to connect with management and the mandate of the organization. This is a different value proposition from what many managers experienced, but we advise clients working on retention to think about the need for young workers to have the opportunity of continuous learning.”

For Lai, like many Millennials, “Work to me is an embodiment of my pride and ability to grow as a person.” For others, especially in the nonprofit sector, the definition of work has different meanings, whether it’s a way to pay the bills while having a passion project on the side, or as an opportunity to experiment, grow and learn skills. Lai says, “The challenge for organizations — and not simply nonprofit organizations — is how to grapple with these different and emerging ideas about work and to customize our workplaces to the different needs of employees.”

So what can you do?

1. Start with yourself. Duncan So, head of global education at Phinklife Institute for Social Impact, suggests people experience disconnect from their work when it doesn’t fully express who they are. He encourages young leaders to “really understand what drives you at the deepest level,” saying this is essential in the nonprofit world. He emphasizes that understanding your deepest values is not merely an intellectual exercise, but “what wakes us up excited every day.” He argues that often young leaders, eager to take on a role in a nonprofit, will compromise themselves by doing whatever it takes. Stepping back to determine your own passion and inner gifts can shift this so that you begin seeking leadership and skill development not because of market demands but because it is aligned with your values. He says, “If you are misaligned, fine, but you need to take responsibility for knowing and aligning your own values. It doesn’t start with communicating with other people, but communicating with yourself.”

2. Get the lay of the land. There’s a lot you can’t know about an organization until you are actually working there. Lai encourages young leaders to really understand the “pre-existing conditions” and realities of your workplace — how people communicate, the real chain of command, etc. Not only does this offer a realistic look at the organization, but it shows that you have a genuine desire to understand, and an openminded approach to work, factors Lai says contribute to earning the trust of those in authority. She also suggests finding a coworker or two who can help answer any questions you might have about how the organization works.

3. Try an entry interview. Lai says, “People talk about exit interviews but why not start with an entry interview.” Eileen Chadnick, author, coach, and principal of Big Cheese Coaching, agrees: “Be clear when you take a job – if appropriate – that you have longer term career aspirations. Be clear that you aren’t in a rush, you appreciate the learning and will give the job your all, but that your hope is that you will be contributing, learning and growing because you have a long-term plan.” Lai says, “Open communication and transparency around expectations is important. I sit down with my manager and communicate that I like working here, would like to do more, and articulate what ‘more’ means to me.” Chadnick says, “Being ambitious doesn’t have to take away from your lovely personality and character.” Lai adds, “While some managers may not be used to this kind of communication, smart organizations that attract and retain good workers are ones that are constantly evolving and improving.”

4. Develop people skills. Chadnick cautions young leaders: “If you’re too focused on your career trajectory and not paying attention to learning, you may end up failing.” Particularly in today’s contract culture, Chadnick says, “Titles may matter but it’s all about skills and abilities.” While it’s easy to focus on functional skills (i.e. mastering new accounting software), Chadnick and others encourage emerging leaders to develop emotional intelligence skills that are essential in people management. So’s Phinklife Institute offers programs on topics like cognitive flexibility and emotional flexibility.

5. Hone your communications. “When we operate from different worldviews — where you are at and where your organization’s management is at — the right communication tools allow you to connect and explore differences creatively so that you can connect on a higher value,” says So. “When you don’t have those tools and assume you share beliefs, it unintentionally creates conflict.” Chadnick counsels clients to use conversational intelligence that moves beyond demanding “I”-focused conversations to collaborative “we” conversations that show appreciation for the other perspective. So encourages leaders to learn and use tools such as rapid rapport, appreciative inquiry, and interviewing. Along these lines, Barroll says, “Shift your focus of your conversation with managers from ‘I’m not challenged’ to ‘These are additional things I bring and how they can move the goals of the organization forward.”

6. Build your networks. Relationships build your social capital, offering you everything from empathy to new perspectives and perhaps even new work. A variety of different relationships can be useful:

  • Mentors – Chadnick suggests that seeking mentoring and guidance from more mature workers at later stages in their careers can be helpful for young leaders.
  • Peers – Lai says “There is a sense of assurance in talking with people in a similar phase of life who are able to say ‘you aren’t wrong —this is actually happening’, and to offer support and empathy.”
  • Colleagues – Barroll suggests that when you are finished with your work, offering help to colleagues in different roles or departments is a great way to extend your work, to learn other skills and aspects of the organization.
  • Those outside your bubble – “Those moments at conferences or when I’m exposed to a new idea are the ones that push me beyond what I already know,” says Lai. “They poke holes in my bubble or make it grow bigger so I can see what is out there, have a better sense of the landscape, what I’m good at, who I need to talk to.” So concurs, suggesting that building relationships inside and outside your company can take you to a tipping point where new opportunities will present themselves.

These relationships can especially be important for those who start off in a disadvantaged position, such as being a visible minority or a person with a disability, says Lai. “Where there are systemic barriers that prevent you from getting ahead, it’s helpful to check with a few trusted people to understand what might be going on.”

7. Ask for feedback. “Don’t wait for feedback,” advises Chadnick. “A lot of people are afraid of feedback, but the smart career-builder knows it is important. It lets you know how you are viewed, where you need to develop. Even if you disagree, it still gives you information that allows you to be proactive.” Chadnick adds that not every leader is trained or equipped to support the growth of their people, so you can help them know how by framing your requests, asking what you can do better on, and asking for feedback.

8. DFTBA (Don’t Forget To Be Awesome). “Asking for what you want without having a standout value proposition is where a lot of the incongruence happens,” says Chadnick. “The idea of entitlement often comes when people negotiate on the basis of deserving something. It may be true but it doesn’t speak to your value.” While Lai reminds young leaders to “try to be as good as you can be,” Chadnick says, “If you aren’t known for what you can do, that might be your fault. Sometimes Canadians and people in nonprofits are modest. Find ways to inform those who need to know about your accomplishments. Share wins. Be seen not only as a productive individual contributor but a strong team contributor.” This could be as simple as sending out an email celebrating the accomplishment of a team.

9. Know when to walk away. Chadnick had a Millennial client who felt stagnant in her work at a nonprofit and sought coaching help. “We coached on patience first,” says Chadnick. “She asked for what she needed, got support from her boss and others, found mentors inside and outside the organization, was developing herself, didn’t simply look to the organization to invest in her career but invested in herself and learned a lot.” Eventually, however, “there came a time when it was evident this wouldn’t be the place for her to grow her skills. She moved on.” While Chadnick notes that every situation is different and requires judgment to determine a course of action, So says, “Going through this process helps you know if an organization is paying you essentially to keep a seat warm. Then you can ask yourself: is that a good place for me to stay or do I want to continue my skill expression in a different place.” Often times, Lai says, “When I’ve felt I had to move on to broaden my scope and responsibilities, my employers also recognized this.”

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

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