Ten Strategies for Engaging Generation Y in the Nonprofit Workplace

In the week since I posted my thoughts on compensation of support employees in the nonprofit sector, the entry has been Facebooked, LinkedIn, Twittered, re-blogged, and emailed to the point that it is now the second-most-viewed Createquity post of all time (and fast gaining on the leader, Got Milk?). It’s no coincidence, I suspect, that the topic of Generation Y in the workplace provoked such a storm of activity on social media heavily used by Generation Y. Although I wasn’t talking exclusively about Generation Y in that post (some support employees, after all, are veterans of the trade, though this is seemingly becoming less common), my thoughts were certainly informed by my own experiences as a twentysomething entry-level employee in several nonprofit organizations as well as the stories of a number of my peers.

For this post, my thoughts were further informed by my own experience, albeit more limited in scope, managing others. Managing employees is a skill in and of itself, and one that is seldom taught, not even (surprisingly) in business school. After all, most people who ascend to management positions, particularly at smaller organizations, do so because they are good at their previous jobs—jobs that often don’t involve managing others—not necessarily because they are good managers. So, I offer the following ten suggestions with a deep respect for how difficult the art of managing, especially in an under-resourced environment, can be. My hope is that those who read them will find therein ideas and inspiration for forging stronger, deeper ties with the young employees who represent the future of their organizations, and of the sector as a whole.

Ten Strategies for Engaging Generation Y in the Nonprofit Workplace

  1. Have things for them to do on day one. There is no surer or quicker way to turn young, fresh-faced, enthusiastic Gen Y social citizens away from the nonprofit sector forever than to suffocate them with boredom in their first job. All too often, employers fall into the trap of being underprepared for their new team member’s first day, hurriedly throwing a heap of random tasks into their laps or simply telling them to spend a few days (or weeks, or months) “getting to know” the organization’s internal files. Much better to prepare an orientation of sorts for them, at least a day in length, during which they’ll have the undivided attention of their manager as they are introduced to the rest of the staff, briefed on the overall strategic direction of the organization and how their job fits into it, shown the major functions of their job, and offered specific training on the initial tasks to which they’ve been assigned. Managers should have at least several weeks’ worth of projects determined in advance of the new hire’s first day, with realistic targets for completion set and regular check-ins planned.
  2. Take their intelligence seriously. If your new employee is just graduating from college, she is coming from an environment in which demonstrations of her intelligence and individuality are valued, celebrated, encouraged, and expected, and she will be looking for the same from you. If she comes from a school with a well-recognized name, it’s also entirely possible that she went through a selection process that was more competitive and rigorous than anything you’ve been through, even if you graduated from the same school. The increasing numbers of Americans going to college, combined with an increasingly competitive talent pool as need-blind admissions become more and more common and international students vie for slots, have made getting into top colleges a grueling affair. Even if she graduated from somewhere else, she probably is one sharp cookie to have made it through the even more grueling selection process that led to her being hired by your organization. After all, it’s not unheard of these days for organizations to get hundreds of applications for a single entry-level job. So recognize that you may have a rock star in your midst, and instead of feeling threatened by it…
  3. Give them challenging work that matters.take advantage of it! Look, whatever they tell you during the interview, no eager young grad comes to a nonprofit organization dreaming about organizing your tax records! or telemarketing ticket sales! or sucking up to rich people! They’re there because they believe in the mission of the organization and because they WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Now, that’s not to say that any entry-level job will necessarily be free of boring busywork. But to the extent possible, try to find projects for them to work on, even for only part of the time, that stretch their abilities and represent new frontiers for the organization. Small organizations, especially, should have plenty of material to work with in this regard, since no one ever has enough time to do all the things they’d like to do. The work will excite them and serve as an energizing counterbalance to the aspects of the job they may not enjoy as much.
  4. Don’t squash initiative. Does your new employee have lots of ideas about how to improve the way things work around here? Is he eager, maybe a little too eager, to share them with you? Does that kind of piss you off, and make you think it would be better if he just shut up and did his job? Does it make you want to shoot him down, just a little bit? Don’t give in to the temptation! This is a natural reaction whenever anyone who hasn’t “paid their dues” presumes to judge the hard work that you and your colleagues have put in. But though it may be natural, it’s not productive. What your new employee thinks about organization or departmental practices is valuable information. His perspective as a quasi-outsider and, perhaps, a member of a generation your programs are trying to reach, is difficult for you to replicate. If his opinions bother you, rather than rejecting them outright, see if you can corroborate them from other sources. He may be telling you something you need to hear. (Oh, and by the way, squashing initiative is another great way to kill a young person’s affection for the nonprofit sector.)
  5. Don’t be a slave to the job description. Your new hire brings with him a unique package of abilities and interests that may or may not have all that much to do with the job that he was hired for. Sure, you wouldn’t have hired him if you didn’t think he could do the work. Nevertheless, it’s quite possible and even likely that your employee is much more passionate about the mission of your organization than he is about the details of his day-to-day job. So, as you and your employee become more familiar with each other, figure out what kinds of work really get him excited and draw his engagement. If you come across a situation in which he seems much more interested in working on something other than what you thought you needed him to be working on, especially if he is showing initiative in seeking out that work, don’t get frustrated! See it as an opportunity to forge a better match between employee and function, and try to find ways to get more of that work onto his plate. Sometimes, employees enjoy having a number of different projects to juggle; Gen Y workers, having grown up on instant messaging and cell phones and using laptops in class, tend to be particularly comfortable with this type of multitasking. If you can, you might even consider structuring (or restructuring) your organization to take advantage of this. Private sector consulting firms, for example, recruit college and MBA grads to be “Analysts” and “Associates” respectively. There’s no function or industry designation in the title. The expectation is that employees will be generalists, applying their talents wherever they’re needed. It’s then up to the managers to identify those talents and use them wisely on behalf of the company’s clients. Similarly, nonprofits could develop rotational programs for their entry-level employees that provide experience in a number of functional areas, or simply maintain a more informal workplace environment in which responsibilities are carried out by teams of workers or task forces rather than individuals. The more effectively a manager can tie an employee’s work to his abilities and interests, the more that employee’s productivity and loyalty will increase.
  6. Invest in their professional growth. This one is hard for smaller nonprofits, because in most people’s minds, “investing in professional growth” means hiring expensive professional development consultants or helping employees pay for graduate degrees. While I think such programs can be quite valuable and should absolutely be explored by wealthier organizations, there are simple steps that even cash-poor nonprofits can take to develop their emerging leaders. First, by following the advice above and regularly adjusting job responsibilities, organizations will give their young employees experience in a variety of different functional areas, all of which can come in handy later. Secondly, an effective performance review system, with appropriate feedback mechanisms for the employee, can do wonders to add helpful structure to a working relationship. What are your goals for them for the next year? What are their goals for themselves for the next year? What can you do to make their work more enjoyable and effective? Finally, work to fill in the expertise gaps the employee might have that are relevant to the job at hand. Let’s say you need her to maintain the organization website. If you can teach her what she needs to know yourself, great. If not? Maybe there’s someone else connected to the organization who can help. Failing that, enroll her in a class or workshop. Expecting her to pick up these skills herself, without any further guidance, should only be a last resort.
  7. Reward talent and hard work. Given that there are hordes of contenders for even entry-level nonprofit jobs, from an economic standpoint, it’s probably not necessary or wise to try to compete with private sector firms on starting salary. After all, every new hire carries with it a certain risk that things won’t work out, and that risk is more substantial when the employee has very little or no full-time work experience. Nonprofit starting salaries thus can, and probably should, reflect that risk. But once the employee has had a chance to prove herself—and, really, it shouldn’t take that long—that starting salary is no longer necessarily a fair indicator of the value she brings to the organization. So if she’s been working her tail off for six months or a year, bringing new ideas to the table and volunteering for extra tasks that interest her, and realizes that she would have achieved the exact same result for herself by slacking off and doing the minimum necessary to keep from being fired, it’s not surprising that she might begin to lose energy at that point. It’s not surprising that she might start looking around for another job at that point, or thinking about grad school. Because if she finds herself in a place where her contributions are neither acknowledged nor seemingly even noticed, she’ll want to put herself in a place where they are. So my recommendation is this: establish a probationary period of, say, three months for all new entry-level employees as they train to do their jobs. Make sure they know what the expectations are, hold them accountable to those expectations, and don’t be afraid to let them go if they’re clearly not measuring up. If they show themselves to be as competent as you thought they were when you hired them, give them a raise. If they continue to distinguish themselves after that period is over, give them another raise. If raises are a problem because of finances, change their title. Give them more responsibility. Give them ownership, autonomy. If someone else leaves, consider giving them that job. It doesn’t have to be a lot at any given time, but workers need to feel like they’re progressing and that they’re appreciated. A steady diet of recognition that’s based on actual accomplishments is the best way to do this.
  8. Give them face time with leadership. When was the last time your entry-level staffers were invited to a board meeting? Doesn’t it make sense, if you want them to be invested in the organization, for them to know what’s going on with it? I was invited to be the note-taker at board meetings at one of my early jobs, and I was glad to do it. It was exciting for me to be a fly on the wall, see what a board meeting was like. Have a large staff? You could still let people participate on a rotating or lottery basis. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could even let entry-level employees make presentations to the board. This idea of face time applies to executive leadership no less than it does to the board. I was at one of my previous jobs for months before I got to spend more than a couple of minutes with the organization’s executive director. Remember that until such interactions take place, top leadership will seem distant and inaccessible to an entry-level employee. A lunch date or a meeting in the office can quickly solve that problem.
  9. Give them face time with the public. Does your organization ever send people to sit on panels? Hold public workshops? Maintain a blog, or a Twitter account? Why not give your emerging leader a shot at one of these? Remember, Generation Y is accustomed to expressing their individuality and sees it as an integral part of their existence. Many will reap a fair bit of excitement and intrinsic satisfaction from the opportunity to represent their organization before the public, and get their name out there in the process. It doesn’t have to be a big deal—for example, you could add the employee as a contributor to the blog and allot him a couple of posts a month, rather than having him run the thing entirely—but even little gestures will go a long way in this regard.
  10. Incorporate their voices into organizational decision-making. One of the reasons that many nonprofit organizations now find themselves struggling to connect with younger generations is because they didn’t take full enough advantage of that generation’s presence among their employees. Today’s twentysomethings’ experience of childhood is completely different from that of their parents, due to the technologies that have emerged in the meantime. Their social networks are totally different, their relationship to information is totally different, and their cultural preferences may be totally different as well. It’s valuable, incredibly valuable, to have those voices represented at the table when making decisions that affect the organization’s future direction. Not to mention that if you have an employee who is sharp as a nail, who works hard, who believes in the mission of the organization, why wouldn’t you want that person involved in decision-making, no matter what her age?

As you can see, the above suggestions follow a certain order: certainly, you wouldn’t necessarily want to give a fresh-from-college hire a golden key to your organization’s Twitter account on his first day. But it doesn’t take that long to tell whether an employee has a future with the organization that’s hired him. And if it’s determined that he does, the above steps will help ensure that his talents and ideas are leveraged for the organization’s maximum benefit, rather than left to die on the vine. It should always be an organization’s ambition, whenever possible, to turn an entry-level employee into an emerging leader.

Further (recent) reading:

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5 Comments

  1. Sam Davidson
    Posted April 13th, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    These are all fantastic suggestions. I do a lot with nonprofits and Gen Y, mainly when it comes to volunteer and donor recruitment. I’ll add you to my list of experts when it comes to Gen Y workplace issues.

    Again – great stuff.

  2. Paul
    Posted April 15th, 2009 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Ian – Really wonderful blog. This caught my eye when Thomas Cott posted to his “You’ve Cott Mail” with your first Emerging Leaders article. As a 2008 college grad that joined a non-profit upon graduation and left two weeks ago because I was, as you described it “a cog in the machine”, I’ve felt some justification in my decision because of the points you’ve made. I hope that Non-profit Execs are listening and acting on your advice. As you say, us 20-somethings are approaching non-profits because of the connection to their mission statement and are eager to help further the initiatives. To be met with inaction, unpreparedness, and feelings of being threaten (among the other pitfalls you describe here) just squashes any loyalty and ambition.

    Keep writing – great work!!

  3. Maryann Devine
    Posted April 15th, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    #4 is especially important, in my opinion. Many years ago, when I was an entry level employee at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, yes, I had boring tasks to perform. But if I saw an opportunity to fill a niche in the organization, my bosses were savvy enough to let me run with it. With that kind of support, I ended up working for the Alliance for NINE years!

  4. DebbieNorris
    Posted April 25th, 2009 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    These are great engagement tips… And I think they have applicability that goes past Gen Y. I think they all matter for employees or any and all generations.

  5. Maria Psarrou
    Posted November 6th, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on your really interesting suggestions! As a generation Y member of Greece, I am always feeling that there is no space to develop and show your work. Beaureaucracy tends to control and manipulate creativity as well as decision – making is based on a safety way of thinking. To dream of change and work for it, always involves trouble, especially if your boss can not underastand your plan and feels fear from loosing control and his power.
    Baby-boomers are here to hinder the majority of our attempts to turm our dreams into reality, as well as generation X members used to be fond of their personal happiness, without taking into account common good.

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