Millennial engagement: Bringing the next generation into your organization

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Millennials — the next generation of community leaders, philanthropists, staff, board members — have been described, and describe themselves, as passionate, connected, optimistic, and wanting to make an impact.

Imagine Canada lists seven drivers facing the voluntary sector in Canada, three of them being:

  • Shortage of talent to strengthen and lead charitable and nonprofit organizations
  • Changing expectations of volunteers who govern, support and promote civic and community organizations
  • Increased use of social media and new technologies for community engagement, outreach to youth and networking

It would seem the community benefit sector — charities, nonprofit organizations, and other groups of engaged citizens — should be tapping into the passion of the next generation in order to address these three drivers.

It would seem.

But there is a disconnect.

When I tell people that I work with organizations to plan for sustainability by helping them effectively engage their next generation of supporters, one of the most common responses I get is this:

"Yeah, that's a big challenge. Young people these days just aren't loyal."

But what does that mean, "not loyal"?

  • Does it mean that Millennials are staying in roles for shorter periods of time than an organization would wish?
  • Does it mean that while in a specific role, Millennials don't give it their all?
  • Does it mean that Millennials do not follow organizational charts and provide ideas to, and solicit feedback from, people that are not their direct supervisors?

All of these might indicate a lack of loyalty, and I think that all of the above are often true. But it doesn't mean that Millennials aren't loyal. In another article in this issue, a crowdsourced interview with dozens of young Canadians, a contributor wrote, "We look for opportunities to learn, be challenged, and contribute. If that's not happening, we'll leave to find it elsewhere." The perceived lack of loyalty is actually a lack of engagement on the part of the organization and its leadership.

Lucky for us, there are things we can do to adapt. Let's accept that things have changed, and move forward.

New ways of leadership

Historically, leadership was described to be wrapped up in people with important titles and specific characteristics. Researchers used language like "Great Man Theory" and "Trait Theory" to describe how leaders led.

Now, leadership — especially as viewed by Millennials — is changing from something connected to a formal title to that of a set of actions accessible to anyone, no matter his or her position in an organization.

This new leadership, often referred to as transformational leadership, has been referred to in CharityVillage® articles before. In an interview from 2009, Al Hatton, president and CEO of United Way of Canada — Centraide Canada argued that "transformational leadership would resonate with young people, but I don't think we're very advanced in that."

Transformational leaders communicate clear vision and values, are responsible role models, consider the individual interests of the people around them, and create environments that invite new ideas and constructive feedback.

When the Millennials in our communities ignore organizational charts, reporting protocol and formal structures, I argue that it's because they are attracted to people that act in ways consistent with transformational leadership.

All of us can develop our transformational leadership by setting behaviour-based goals and implementing these actions in regular intervals. Examples of these goals could be:

  • I will thank one person per day.
  • I will discuss career aspirations with individual staff.
  • I will follow through on time with action items I have been assigned in meetings.
  • I will encourage staff to challenge the status quo (of processes, events, etc.).
  • I will find opportunities for staff to work outside of their role description when it fits with their learning goals.

Take a moment to think about the best leaders you've worked with. Were they transformational leaders? When Millennial staff turnover is high, a gap in transformational leadership is likely one of the reasons. Close that gap.

New ways of engaging volunteers

Recruiting volunteers isn't a challenge for all organizations. I recently completed a series of interviews for my master's research on volunteer engagement. I had the opportunity to speak with individuals who had been identified as effectively engaging volunteers.

It turns out that these individuals weren't just sticking to the traditional tasks associated with volunteer management — writing a role description, recruiting, training, and rewarding volunteers. Instead, I found other very interesting trends among these nonprofit professionals. One important note is that they did not have problems recruiting volunteers, which gives weight to the themes that were found. A few highlights include:

1. They had a big-picture approach to their work. They were not just responsible for volunteer engagement, and likewise they saw volunteer engagement as the responsibility of everyone. They linked the work of volunteers to the larger mission of the organization and stayed true to the philosophies and values of the organization.

2. They adapted volunteer roles to accept current realities of volunteers. They attributed a lack of commitment of volunteers to their full lives, and not to character flaws. To react to these realities, they often worked with volunteers in episodic roles — where volunteers have a role for a few months, then leave, but then possibly come back in a different role six months or two years down the road.

3. They saw volunteers as peers, not subordinates. Volunteers were seen to bring special skills to the organization and even to be smarter than the interviewees. They also often developed long lasting friendships with volunteers.

4. They acknowledged the time and energy required to engage volunteers and to get to know them as individuals. They made sure to only engage a number of volunteers that could be effectively managed given the time they had.

These trends speak strongly to the interests and realities of Millennials (though are not unique to Millennials) — wanting a clear connection to the mission of an organization; having to balance multiple priorities such as school, work, and family in addition to volunteering; wanting to use and gain skills and connect with organizational leadership; and having an interest in connecting with people and feeling personally appreciated.

However, many organizations are not set up to engage volunteers in these ways:

  • Volunteer management is delegated to a single "volunteer coordinator."
  • Programs are designed to require long-term commitments.
  • The type of work done by volunteers is administrative or repetitive in nature.
  • The number of volunteers is scaled up without an associated increase in staff resources.

Changing course on the way we engage volunteers isn't easy. Colleen Kelly, executive director of Vantage Point, recently lamented the challenges of "renovating" the ways organizations engage volunteers. It requires buy-in from all levels of an organization, especially the formal leadership. It requires challenging organizational structures and job descriptions. It requires completely rethinking how we deliver our programming and our client services if these rely on volunteers. It requires a larger investment in volunteer engagement overall. We need architects designing a new system, not carpenters patching up the old. And until we implement these new ways of doing, we won't be able to guarantee that our Millennial volunteers will stick around.

New ways of operating

While technology is changing at an incredible rate, I believe that the most important uses of technology that an organization can implement are not exclusive to social media. Technology should be used to help us deliver our missions more efficiently. We can communicate with our supporters, collect and disseminate information, retain records, and work in ways that are faster, cheaper, and more accurate.

In another article in this CharityVillage® issue, Dev Aujla describes how the technological upbringing of Millennials combined with their experience working in cash-strapped community initiatives make them ideal idea-generators when it comes to efficiency through technology. Unfortunately, many inefficient processes linger in our sector, and changing systems can cause a lot of stress for staff. And equally as unfortunate, an opportunity to solicit ideas from Millennial staff and truly honour their expertise and suggestions is lost to fear or incomplete information.

A few considerations and opportunities for engaging Millennials through technology include:

  • Thinking long and hard about social media policies for your organization. Are there other policies related to representing the organization or communicating with the public that could cover social media so as not to stifle social media work to the point it's not even worth it?
  • Setting up a task force to analyze all value chains and processes — registration, ticket sales and delivery, newsletter delivery, processing donations — and to suggest possible ways to cut down on data entry, improve customer relations, save money.
  • Taking it upon yourself to get up to date on some common technologies and terms such as RSS feeds and services (e.g. Google Reader, FeedBurner, Netvibes); wikis (e.g. Wikispaces); document sharing tools (e.g. Google Docs, Dropbox,; content management systems (e.g. Drupal, Wordpress); online data collection (e.g. Google Forms [a type of Google Doc], SurveyMonkey); email marketing services (e.g. MailChimp, ConstantContact); meeting scheduling tools (e.g. Doodle). Being informed will help you make better decisions and respond intelligently to ideas and suggestions.
  • Not dumping social media and tech onto young staff blindly. It costs time, and can't be done from the corner of their desks. Also, while they may know the technological tools, they may need support to develop the related strategies.
  • Exploring the use of technology to test alternative work arrangements. If you trust your staff and communicate expectations clearly, flex time and working away from the office is possible; technology can help.

There are so many opportunities for organizations to use technology and focus on making amazing things happen, rather than getting bogged down with inefficient practices. And I bet your Millennial staff and volunteers have ideas how. They want to make an impact, and they aren't going to feel very impactful when they are frustrated doing administrative tasks in ways that don't take advantage of technology.

Get passionate about change

I get so excited envisioning new leadership, volunteer, and technological practices. I can be dorky that way. But I'd like to think all of us get excited when we make plans to improve ourselves and our organizations. Engage your Millennial supporters in those plans.

As community benefit organizations we want to leave legacies — people helped, environment saved, children inspired, a culture of art, a healthy population, equal opportunity. But we can't do that if the next generation isn't active in our missions. Opportunities to engage them effectively exist. Ask them how.

These are the leaders, volunteers, and donors of the present and future. If we don't progress with them, our missions are going to get left behind. Let's accept that things have changed, and move forward.

Trina Isakson (@telleni) is principal of 27 Shift, where she helps organizations tap into the passion within the next generation of engaged citizens. She plays flag football, likes chocolate, and lives in Vancouver, BC.

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