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  • Writer's pictureSheena Sullivan

Meet Them Where They Are: Adapting Your Nonprofit to Engage Millennial Talent on Their Terms

This blog post explores the transformative shift occurring in the nonprofit sector as millennials take center stage with the departure of baby boomers.


Young women working at coffee shop

A new era dawns in the realm of nonprofits as baby boomers step aside, and a new generation takes center stage—the millennials. 


This transition isn't just a changing of the guard; it's a call for a radical rethinking of leadership. 


Here, the stage is set for a dynamic exploration of the future of nonprofit leadership—a future shaped by the distinct ethos of the millennial generation. 


In this blog post, we'll delve into the distinct characteristics of millennial workers, explore their impact on the nonprofit sector, and discuss effective strategies for engaging and managing this vibrant generation.


Challenges and Opportunities in Nonprofit Leadership


In navigating the nonprofit landscape, it is evident that millennials play a pivotal role in shaping the future of mission-driven organizations.


The good news is that nonprofit organizations currently hold a significant advantage in terms of attracting millennial talent. Driven by a sense of purpose and a desire for meaningful work, millennials find fulfillment in contributing to social causes.


Adding to this preference, millennials exhibit a considerable distrust of business, with less than half agreeing that the corporate sector positively impacts society, as per Deloitte's 2023 survey.


This presents a substantial opportunity, especially for smaller nonprofits, not only to attract but also to leverage the talent of millennial employees. This generation often opts for smaller organizations, anticipating more direct experience and a greater chance to make a meaningful contribution.


Despite extensive research on millennials in the workplace, it's important to note that not all findings apply seamlessly to the nonprofit sector. The characteristics of millennial workers in nonprofits can significantly differ from their counterparts in for-profit companies. 


In the sections that follow, I parse out what you need to know about millennial staff members as a nonprofit leader, specifically. 

Understanding Generational Dynamics

To grasp the significance of millennials in the nonprofit workforce, we must first acknowledge the diversity of generations shaping our sector’s landscape. 


We currently have up to five generations at work in our organizations.


From the silent generation to baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Z, each cohort carries its own set of values and traits influenced by the historical and social context of their formative years.



While some critics (e.g., Costanza & Finkelstein, 2015) challenge the validity of generational studies, there’s a plethora of recent research on the topic, suggesting a continued interest in understanding millennials. 


One understandable concern among the critics is that discussing generational differences perpetuates stereotypes. 


On the contrary, examining the workforce from a research-based generational perspective can help us move beyond stereotypes and view generational analysis as a tool for gaining insights.


The first step is to recognize that age is a dimension of diversity. Understanding generational differences is key to respecting and accommodating the unique needs and strengths of workers of all ages from an equity standpoint.


It is critical to acknowledge that understanding the similarities and differences between generational cohorts does not predict individual behavior.


As we move forward, it is not about generational stereotypes but about leveraging insights to create inclusive, engaging, and purpose-driven workplaces that cater to the evolving needs of the millennial workforce in the United States nonprofit sector.


Millennials: Shaping the Future Nonprofit Workforce


At 56 million strong, millennials are the largest generation at work. This group makes up 35% of the U.S. workforce and will hold a majority for years to come. 


Born between 1981 and 1996 (according to the Pew Research Center), millennials surpassed the baby boomers as the largest living adult generation in 2019. 


Their formative years were marked by significant events like the 9/11 attacks, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the 2008 economic recession, which collectively shaped their worldview and values. Millennials are also the first generation of digital natives, having grown up during the rapid expansion of the internet.


Understanding the traits of millennial workers is pivotal for organizations. What sets the millennial generation apart is their racial and ethnic diversity and their association with characteristics such as entitlement, optimism, and civic-mindedness.

 

The unique (and often criticized) "helicopter parenting style" contributed to their sense of empowerment and desire to create positive social change.





Engaging and Managing Millennials in the Nonprofit Sector 


Engaging millennials in nonprofit work requires a different approach from older generations.


Motivated by autonomy, collaboration, and a strong emphasis on work-life balance, nonprofits who want to attract and keep them will have to adapt their strategies to accommodate these preferences.


Despite the perception of millennials as job-hoppers, studies show that job satisfaction and a sense of purpose can significantly influence their loyalty to an organization. When millennial nonprofit employees do switch jobs, they tend to stay within the sector.


While millennials have a general reputation for being financially driven, those who select nonprofit work do so because they are mission-driven. 


Thus, nonprofits need to focus on communicating the mission of the organization, their impact on society and the environment, as well as their commitment to diversity and inclusion to appeal to millennials.


What Millennials Value Most


In the realm of workplace expectations, millennials place a high premium on values alignment with their employers. This section delves into the core values and priorities that millennials hold dear in the workplace.


Flexibility


Millennials highly value work/life balance and want to decide when and from where they work. 


Younger people clearly prefer a hybrid work arrangement where they both from home and in an office. A significant 75% of respondents to Gallup’s survey (2023) who currently work some or all the time from home would consider finding a new job if they were required to go to work on-site full-time.


Surprisingly, they don’t want to work from home all the time. Less than two in 10 Gen Zers and millennials desire a fully remote work arrangement (according to a recent study by Deloitte). This is probably because they highly value collaboration, finding satisfaction in the give-and-take of teamwork.


Feedback (with exceptions)


Millennials like to witness tangible outcomes and receive constructive feedback on their work. However, for this age group, not all feedback is created equal. 


Millennials tend to seek affirmation that aligns with their perceived personal success, welcoming feedback that underscores their achievements. On the flip side, they often reject and criticize feedback that challenges their success.


The Environment


Apprehensions about climate change significantly shape millennials’ decision-making processes, including decisions related to their careers and workplaces.


According to Deloitte, millennials actively address climate change, with 70% of respondents to their 2023 survey indicating that they make conscious efforts to minimize their environmental impact. 


Moreover, this demographic continues to advocate for heightened climate action from their employers.


For nonprofits, this means that even organizations with mission unrelated to the environment need to prioritze reducing their carbon footprint in order to align with millennial values.


Download the Infographic: Traits of Millennials in Nonprofits

Summary 


As seasoned professionals get ready to exit the nonprofit workforce, understanding the work patterns of younger workers becomes imperative. 


Specifically, delving into the employment behaviors of the millennial generation is crucial, given that they constitute the largest age group in the nonprofit workforce.


Millennials differ substantially from previous generations. Acknowledging their unique characteristics, values, and expectations is essential for effective leadership and management. 


Hybrid work options, teamwork, regular feedback, and environmental responsibility are key components in fostering a work environment that resonates with millennial values.




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