The Future of Our Missions: Employing the Next Generation
Soon after I graduated college in 1999, I became the first full-time paid employee of a small nonprofit organization called the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. Fourteen years later, and after a lot of learning on the job, I’m now humbled to serve as president and CEO. I’ve successfully made a career of working in this sector and I have an amazing team, with 20 programs touching people in all 50 states.
As an accidental career nonprofit professional, I’ve witnessed a lot and become passionate about quite a few things. One of my biggest soapbox items is the opportunity and responsibility we have to shape the future of our sector with talented young professionals. And I’m disappointed to report we can do a lot better.
Every summer for the past four years, our organization has witnessed more than 200 college-aged young adults cycle or run across the country to support our mission. As part of our 4K for Cancer Program (4K representing their 4,000-mile journey), these motivated, talented and socially aware young adults have collectively raised nearly $4 million, touched more than 40,000 people, and visited thousands of communities spreading awareness and hope. They’re incredible, and I’ve been lucky and smart enough to hire six of them to work with me at the Ulman Cancer Fund.
Whether it be a 4K participant or one of our many college interns, it is always surprising and disappointing to hear that few have given any thought to turning their passion for service into a career working at a nonprofit. Where are we going wrong, and why are so many recent college graduates repeatedly passing over the nonprofit sector as a serious career choice?
A May 2015 Newsweek article titled “Millennial College Graduates: Young, Educated, Jobless” stated that 2.8 million college graduates will attempt to enter the workforce this spring, just as our country’s unemployment rate hits its lowest level in nearly seven years. Isn’t this a cause for celebration? Maybe not yet. Millennials continue to lag in the workforce, just as they did in 2014, making up 40 percent of the unemployed in our country. Young adults are not considering work in nonprofits, and they are closing themselves off to a growing sector of the economy at a time they can ill afford to ignore employment opportunities. It’s causing us to miss out on some great talent—and what I believe is the future of our social sector.
Even more perplexing, despite two recessions from 2000 to 2010, the nonprofit sector has posted a remarkable 10-year record of job growth. According to data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies, nonprofit employment has grown at a rate of 2.1 percent per year, while for-profit jobs declined -0.6 percent per year over the same period. And there are no signs of that growth slowing down. More than 50 percent of nonprofits polled in the annual Nonprofit Employment Trends Survey indicated they will increase staff size in 2015.
In hopes of motivating all of us to better shape the future of sector, here are four things we can do better to promote the nonprofit sector as a career choice.
1. Clear up misconceptions
There is a persistent notion that “nonprofit” means no one gets paid. I can’t count the number of times someone asked me where I work, only to ask, “But what do you do for a living?” when I tell them I run a charitable organization. This misconception is damning in the eyes of young adults, many of whom are trying desperately to pay off student loans and put a small amount into savings. “Nonprofit” does not mean “volunteer.” Like any business, we get paid for our work. In fact, the average entry-level nonprofit job salary in 2015 was $49,000. SimplyHired.com lists the average entry-level salary for for-profit companies at $52,000—not that far off from the nonprofit sector.
2. Be proud
We’ve all done it—made a comment about working for a nonprofit and not being able to purchase that new watch or make ends meet. It’s time for all of us to take that chip off our shoulder and be proud of what we do. Regardless of what we make, we all made a choice to be a part of this amazing community, and we need to stand up and share that enthusiasm with the world. Don’t ever diminish what you do—it gives the wrong message.
3. Build our brand
All of us are relentless in promoting the missions of our organizations, and we need to do the same for the nonprofit sector. We are our best advocates and we need to do more writing, speaking, shouting and cheering about the purpose and promise of working in this space. Like all great companies and teams, we must build a brand people want to join—and then share it with the world.
4. Invest in your people and give them a vision
Whether you’re a nonprofit or a for-profit, your single most important asset as a business is your people. Too often I see nonprofits cut corners when it comes to taking care of their people—limited benefits, archaic technology, shoestring compensation plans, etc. Some of us may feel handicapped by the functional expense game, but we need to make sure we take care of our teams so they can better deliver our missions. Give them the tools to do their jobs, and clearly outline the career path they can take within your organization.
It’s time to start talking up what we do to the next generation of young leaders. Now is the time to hire your successors—and they may have just graduated from college.