There is a prevailing assumption that millennials would rather network with one another through virtual communities and social media than meeting face to face.
The question is: is this true in the nonprofit sector in Canada? Or is this just another damaging stereotype about millennials that is generally false?
There’s evidence on both sides. It's true that membership and participation in traditional networking groups such as Lions Club and Kiwanis have been in decline since the 1980s. While affiliation in groups such as sports associations is growing across Canada, participation in service clubs declined from 8% in 2003 to 6% in 2013, something Statistics Canada attributes in part to “different stages of the life course, but possibly generational differences”.
Nonprofit organizations that have invested a significant amount of time and money in an effort to foster connection and learning among young nonprofit professionals have not always seen the results they hoped for. In fact, after four years of incubating the Next Leaders Network, only to experience declining participation rates and lack of new members, in 2012, Vantage Point in Vancouver concluded, “something isn’t working” and decided to stop hosting the network.
At the same time, the executive director of Business Network International, millennial Dana Gallagher, writes, “Face-to-face networking will never go out of style. [It is] a common misconception that millennials would rather network with one another via social media than face-to-face. All of my experiences, and everyone I know, have shown this to be the exact opposite. If we had a choice of either type of networking the answer would be face-to-face every time, hands down. Human interaction is one of the most powerful ways to network and connect with others.”
What does face-to-face networking look like for millennials?
Baldwin Cunningham, himself a millennial, believes, “The core networks for millennials aren’t older traditional structures like alumni networks, but are about organized groups at various levels of formality that provide a certain vetting and trust to their members.”
There are meet-ups for technology professionals interested in social good and associations for fundraising professionals across Canada. GTA-based Endeavour Consulting for Non-Profits offers networking and relationship building as part of its volunteer experience: they set up teams of skilled volunteers to provide pro bono consulting to charities with low revenue to improve organizational capacity and community impact.
Over the last few years, Sheena Greer of Colludo in Saskatchewan has gathered nonprofit leaders for what she calls “nonprofit playdates” where they meet face to face to “eat cookies, drink juice and have big conversations about working toward change.”
Christine Carter observes that networking playdates sometimes actually involve the children of millennials. “Older millennials...spend time with their children whenever possible and value work-life integration. Because millennials multitask far more than previous generations, those with children leverage a common bond, scheduling networking playdates with colleagues who have children of a similar age. This also allows millennial parents to relate on a personal level, simultaneously strengthening their professional relationship.” She also notes that millennial networking can involve dinner parties or high-energy activities rather than the more traditional golf game.
One organized group that is seeing significant growth is the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) — which, according to its executive director, Jamie Smith, increased the number of their chapters by 60% between 2011 and 2016.
YNPN began in 1997 when a group of nonprofit professionals in the San Francisco Bay area “gathered to commiserate about their shared experience in the sector.” They organized a meet-up at a local bar and were inundated with dozens of young nonprofit employees. Today YNPN has more than 50,000 members in 42 cities —including Ottawa, Ontario.
“You can certainly network online or virtually,” says Smith, “but there is something about being together in person and in community that is critical to emotional development and shared identity as social change-makers. That’s why the in-person element is so important.”
Greer agrees. “Being stuck at a desk is no fun, and while events like conferences help you get out and learn, there isn't always an opportunity for ‘networking’ right at the event. Social media is a great opportunity to find others in the sector, but it doesn't really get rid of that feeling of isolation.”
Mary Tersigni-Paltrinieri is the president of YNPN Ottawa, the first YNPN chapter outside of the United States. She admits, “There is a retro feel to meeting in person but the reality of career development and growth is that there’s only so much you can do through a computer screen.” Kristen Mihalko, who leads two networking groups for young nonprofit professionals, agrees.
“Being able to express passion and to bounce ideas off one another is so much easier in person. Meeting face to face allows useful tangents and helps people relate to one another. It also avoids the weird back and forth that happens online. People are so different offline. I’m a huge advocate of professional development and networking.”
Helping develop young leaders
“The sector is full of talented young people with huge hearts, but many leave for a variety of reasons,” says Tersigni-Paltrinieri. “There isn’t a lot of resource development to help young professionals grow in their careers. These young professionals may be in top-heavy organizations with little room for advancement. Wages are often an issue for young people, many of whom move on to the private or public sector.” She adds, “Our goal is to help young leaders want and be able to stay in the nonprofit sector and to help the sector grow.”
Elizabeth McEwen of YNPN Grand Rapids says, “The nonprofits I have worked for have had little to no budget for professional development, and operating with a lean staff meant I often took on projects and responsibilities I really wasn’t prepared for. YNPN gave me opportunities to learn about functional areas of nonprofit administration.” Danielle Kemp of Boston agrees. “I first got involved with YNPN as a newbie in the nonprofit sector. I was a staff of one at my office so I was looking for the support of others and to learn best practices at other nonprofits.”
YNPN Ottawa began with monthly drop-in meet-ups to build their membership. In 2016, they added quarterly professional development workshops – with topics ranging from communications in the nonprofit workplace to a panel of executive directors talking about their career paths to leading major organizations.
Smith says, “YNPN is young people doing it for themselves. If my organization won’t invest in my professional development, I will join others who will share necessary resources.”
Beyond professional development
Many participants in such meet-ups appreciate being able to interact with peers in the same geographic area. Smith says, “While it is fantastic to connect virtually with others, it’s valuable to meet people in your community to share information about vendors with likeminded values, for instance.” McEwen has also benefitted in this regard. “I have appreciated getting to know a group of like-minded individuals who are operating in the same geographical area and facing many of the same challenges as I am.”
Group members also value getting to know their demographic peers. Kemp says, “Our generation is much maligned by the media and others so it’s nice to have peers to talk to about how we actually act.”
In-person meet-ups tend to be far more valuable for job seekers than online communities. Tersigni-Paltrinieri suggests, “If I sat at home on LinkedIn, I wouldn’t have gotten as far in my career in such a short time.” McEwen agrees, saying, “People are more likely to think of or to recommend me for positions if they know me personally. I am beginning a new job for which I never even submitted a resume or had a formal interview.”
At the same time, Cunningham argues that there is less “quid-pro-quo or you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours” and instead that “the payback comes from the community, rather than the individual, and this makes helping others feel far less transactional than perhaps it once was.” He adds, “When someone from within one of those shared communities needs something...millennials feel comfortable providing that resource because they know that, when they need something, someone else in the community will similarly step up.”
Many volunteers with Endeavour Consulting for Non-Profits sign up for the dual purpose of networking with other professionals, as well as to use their skills to give back to the community. Ada Tsang, Endeavour’s co-founder and vice president of human resources, says, “When you go to a networking event, you may not get to know each other but when you volunteer together, you learn from each other and develop deeper and more meaningful relationships.” Endeavour recruits skilled volunteers for strategic consulting projects lasting six months, putting diverse people together in collaborative work teams of six members.
The myth of millennials connecting online isn’t entirely false: there is almost always an online component that spins out from in-person networking events. Dana Gallagher writes, “After meeting someone at a networking event...or any other get-together, we will most likely friend them on Facebook, add them on SnapChat, follow them on Instagram, connect with them on LinkedIn, or all of the above.”
Often meet-ups themselves will also have an online network for participants. As Baldwin Cunningham writes, “Event organizers curate a great group of people, and that group decides they’d like to stay in touch more regularly than just bumping into each other every once in awhile.”
Smith sees the online component of YNPN as one of its key advantages. “We provide in-person connections but our members are also connected to online resources of a network of more than 50,000 members across the US and Canada. This allows people moving to a new city to be able to plug into a local network much more easily.”
In the end, it may sound like networking has not changed much. But while it is true that the human need for connection is unchanging, there are slight shifts in how nonprofit communities and young nonprofit professionals come together in today's working world.
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 almost two decades and loves a good story.
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