How to attract younger talent to the nonprofit sector: What are Millennials and Gen Z looking for?

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On the list of super powers requested by those in the charitable sector, somewhere near the top is surely the ability to know what “they” want. The “they” in question might be donors, board members, leaders or any group that is other than those we consider “us.”

As we ask questions about attracting a younger demographic to the sector, addressing a looming workplace gap, we might make guesses about what they, meaning young people, want.

But, first and foremost, the young workers don’t want you to guess or make assumptions. They want to be asked what they want. They also resist being lumped together as a homogenous group, or a stereotype so we’ve worked at avoiding those traps while still recognizing that there are unavoidable demographic influences that play a role in generational attitudes and preferences.

And so we asked a variety of members of the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts, as well as people who work directly with these groups, to hear what might attract or repel them from the sector. Their answers might surprise you, but so might they.

Stable good work.

Contrary to popular belief, “we’re not looking for unlimited snacks, ping pong tables or napping rooms. We aren’t thinking we will become millionaires,” says Emily Cordeaux, research grants & evaluation specialist, Crohn's and Colitis Canada. “What we are looking for is good, decent work.”

But this can be a challenge for many young workers. Cordeaux, who wrote Imagine Canada’s 2017 Young People and Nonprofit Work report, points to the challenge among younger workers in finding stable nonprofit work. “Although lots of younger people are highly motivated to work in nonprofits and come into this work because they care about a particular subsector or group of people, finding that first stable, paid position can be extremely difficult.” Precarious or temporary work is not sustainable for excellent young workers, many of whom are already challenged by student debt. Being able to secure a fulltime position is enormously appealing for younger workers.

Part of the problem is, as a contributor to the Imagine Canada report says, “The kind of position you’d make available for a new grad, the sector fills with volunteers.” This means the nonprofit sector tends to have a lack of entry-level positions. Further, Cordeaux has seen a number of entry-level positions grow with the employee, but when it is time to replace the employee, the new hire is asked to work at the level of the bigger position, something that usually requires more experience.

One way organizations try to address this is by combining positions, especially in areas that seem to appeal to the digital capabilities of younger workers. One anonymous contributor says, “It’s common to see ‘younger jobs’ include two or three jobs in one with no credit given to how difficult that is, and how skilled that individual has to be. I’ve never seen a graphic designer/manager role, but I have seen a graphic designer/social media role, which are two different skills.” This contributor adds, “Combining what are seen right now as 'young people's work' devalues it and is largely seen as a warning sign. They're called unicorn jobs among my friends.”

Experience and professional development

Mary Barroll, president of Talent Egg, a job site aimed at Generation Z, says that the number one thing the younger generations are looking for is experience and professional development. “They know they are short on workplace skills,” says Barroll, “and they are hungry for an environment that will provide that. More than anything, they want an opportunity to continue to learn, whether that is formally or informally.” While nonprofits with a relatively flat organizational structure and financial constraints may assume that they cannot offer growth opportunities to younger employees, this may be a misunderstanding of what younger workers want in this regard and there may actually be solutions that are feasible in most organizations.

Alyssa Lai, co-chair, Connect the Sector says, “Growth opportunities are not necessarily about someone moving up the ladder, but having stretch assignments and opportunities to add value to a role.” The Imagine report says, “Young people are drawn to employment that allows them to engage in different kinds of tasks and work in flexible and dynamic ways. They appreciate being trusted to take on new responsibilities and problem-solve, whether this means tackling new information technology challenges, learning to create a program budget, or writing a grant proposal for the first time. They appreciate work that is dynamic and that allows them to learn as they go.” Growth opportunities can include having a chance to job shadow someone in a very different role, sitting on a committee or working group within an organization, or developing new aspects to one’s work.

Clarity and candour

One generalization about younger generalizations that seems widespread is a craving for authenticity and transparency. Barroll says, “Authenticity is really what engages young people. They’ve been on Glassdoor and they can figure out what is hyberbole, misrepresentation, etc., and if an employer isn’t walking their talk in the recruitment messaging, the candidate will discover it and look elsewhere.” An anonymous contributor adds, “Your best bet to find young people’s feeling is GlassDoor. Those still working in the sector won’t speak up.”

Along with authenticity comes a desire for clarity. Cordeaux says, “Younger workers want flexibility but not ambiguity.” For Lai, this works its way out at all levels. She advises: “Lay out deliverables clearly. Share real expectations and lay out the state of your organization frankly, being willing to talk about where your organization might fall short.” She adds, “Even a job description is sometimes a problem in smaller organizations.”

Manager/mentorship

What makes the difference for many young employees is the level of support they receive from their managers. “Young workers shared that how they were managed could make or break their experience at an organization in spite of their passion for the cause,” said Cordeaux. “There is some truth to the saying, people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” Barroll says that younger workers want feedback beyond simply an annual review. They look for regular, informal face-to-face feedback about how they are doing, and want to have access to management on a regular basis.

Younger workers also appreciate their managers taking an active role in their career development, something that is more widespread in other sectors. Lai says that too often nonprofit managers focus on the mission or the lack of budget rather than the career growth of its employees. At the same time, when Lai was once hired for a contract position, her manager demonstrated opportunities she would get within the role, opportunities that would help her achieve her larger career goals. “People think employees should start career conversations, but especially when someone is in their first job, they may not have the courage or the awareness to ask such questions. Leaders in other sectors think about how to help their employees progress in their careers. If nonprofit employers opened the door to that conversation, it could have huge positive implications.”

Culture of diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are values that most Millennials and Generation Z take as a given and see as essential in the organizations they work for. Lai says, “Language of diversity and inclusion should be second nature to organizations. For an organization to function well, it is imperative to adopt this lens in everything you do.” This means understanding the complexity and intersectionality of identities and experiences, and diversifying an organization’s workforce, governance, culture and conversations. At the same time, Lai suggests that organizations need to create space where honest, safe conversations about inclusion can happen, and workers can generate solutions to diversify an organization.

Interestingly this emphasis on diversity can overcome a factor that some nonprofits may have thought about as a liability: the reality that they don’t have other Millennial/Generation Z staff. Cordeaux says, “Just because an organization has no other young staff doesn’t have to be a deterrent – it might even be an attraction. I really enjoy working in intergenerational workplaces, where you can learn from people with different life experience and backgrounds. In that diversity is strength. Diverse teams are more creative and can come up with innovative solutions to complex problems.”

Culture of collaboration and appreciation

While Millennials and older workers appreciate being able to work from home, Barroll has observed that this is “not nearly as popular with Generation Z.” This is because younger workers place a high value on working collaboratively. They also highly value relationships with colleagues and the opportunity to work together. (This doesn’t mean that younger workers never want to work remotely; they like the opportunity for flexible work, but it is less of a draw that it once might have been. Barroll notes that this may change as Generation Z moves through the life cycle.)

This relational aspect to work extends to looking for opportunities to socialize with colleagues and supervisors. Barroll says, “Social gatherings shows younger workers that they are appreciated and gives them the opportunity they want to build greater relationships.” She adds that this can be as simple as employees gathering after a fundraising event.

Openness to change

The worst phrase for a younger worker to hear is “This is how we’ve always done it,” says Lai. In a rapidly changing world, younger workers want to work with organizations that are keeping up with the pace of change, and are open to taking risks, thinking creatively, allowing employees to take on different work. One anonymous contributor said, “I worked in the nonprofit sector for over seven years and left because of the intense pushback to bringing in modern workplace policies (i.e. working from home, flex hours), and the complete lack of response to feedback given to upper management at every place I worked, small and large.”

Finally, Cordeaux suggests that employers “remember what it’s like to be new to the world of work. It’s hard doing things for first time. You make a lot of mistakes, You say things in funny ways. You misunderstand tasks that may seem easy to a more seasoned employee.” She adds, “But everyone starts there. People can learn quickly – they just need you to give them that chance. A bit of empathy goes a long way.”

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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