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Millennials Make the Move to the Nonprofit Sector


Stephanie South

Let’s talk about Jane.

She is what they call a Millennial—a.k.a.. a member of Gen Y, a Dot Net, a Net-Genner, part of Generation WE, and a Trophy Kid. She is one of 95 million others who were born between 1978 and 2000 and make up the biggest age cohort in the history of the nation. She is a digital native who thinks in a global context and actually looks up to older generations because she does not, like so many of those who came before her, define herself by opposing them. She has been significantly shaped by events like the Columbine High School shootings and 9/11. She is a kid who grew up with a schedule, was enrolled in every summer camp and after-school activity possible, and built a stellar college application with all of it so she could go to a good school and get a good job.

Enter the economic crash.
A little over a year ago, Jane graduated from college with a degree in political science and minors in journalism and legal studies and is now one of the many Millennials who is “doing good because the economy did them wrong” as a recent New York Times article put it.

Had she graduated in a thriving job market, she might have looked to some high-powered career in some big city, or she might have found herself extending the period of  what is being termed “emerging adulthood” by gallivanting around Europe for a year. However, since she graduated in a time marked by the absence of traditional private sector jobs, Jane headed for a salaried entry-level job at a nonprofit where she could make a dollar and a difference at the same time.

Helping others is important for Jane, just as it is a priority for a large percentage of her Millennial comrades. She spent her life spent growing up in the state the nonprofit serves and her own firsthand experiences with low-income families in impoverished communities have made her sure this is the right place for her to be. Nonetheless, she is what some are calling “sector agnostic.” She knows that many for-profit businesses have a huge focus on socially-responsible practices these days, and despite her current position, Jane might not be a nonprofit sector lifer after the economy rebounds. Although she identifies as a young professional that is part of the 70 percent, according to CompassPoint Nonprofit Services’ survey of the next generation, who might want to be an executive director someday, she has concerns about the ability to maintain a balance between the job she loves and the family she wants to have (and support), as well as barriers to accessing top leadership positions due to lack of mentorship and organizational structure that is highly participatory and team-oriented.

Needless to say, within this generation, simply because of its size, lies a great deal of power and potential to change the world we live in, and this capacity to create social change is only magnified by the fact that these kids are all hopping in the vehicle that was designed to do it—the nonprofit organization. However, this situation could be temporary. If and when the economy recovers, Millennials might be found making u-turns and going back to the traditional “good jobs” where they are not worried about an overwhelming demand to raise funds for their salary, compensation that may not seem adequate to provide for their families while saving for retirement, and long hours on projects that would benefit from another set of hands or eyes.

And, here we have the truth.

Millennials are here to stay, but if nonprofits want to keep them, organizations are going to have to figure out ways to address their concerns. Perhaps this will mean sharing leadership by creating co-executive director positions. Maybe it means designing innovative nonprofit management training programs and mentorship cultures that prepare them to take over as Baby Boomers begin to retire (El Pomar Fellowship, anyone?). And, it definitely means finding ways to ensure that these up-and-comers feel their compensation and dedication add up to a fulfilling career path.