About Nathan Brewer

Whether with his client partners – which include top names from across the federal government, the nonprofit world and the Fortune 500 – or within his own organization, Nathan Brewer’s career has been dedicated to solving organizations’ toughest challenges with innovative solutions that disrupt the lines between strategy and technology. A few years after graduating from Vanderbilt University, Nathan returned to the nation’s capital (where he spent much of his childhood) with Sapient – a leader in the technology world and today, the #1 digital agency in the U.S. Coming up as a consultant and leader with the company, Nathan worked early on to leverage Sapient’s experience with some of the world’s biggest brands to provide game-changing solutions in the public sector. Nathan has worked from the beginning of his career to shift paradigms in the consulting environment. As one of the first employees in Sapient’s Government Services business unit, he was challenged to help profitably operate a government consultancy within the context of a global commercial firm. As a leader in the business, he helped grow Sapient’s government practice to nearly 500 employees, and its revenue by over $50 million. During this time, he earned an MS in Engineering and Technology Management from Oklahoma State University and an MBA from Emory University, and became a Vice President in 2011. Later, looking for innovative ways to expand the firm’s portfolio, Nathan began to explore the ways creative social change takes place in the world, and how consulting companies can play a constructive role in that change; he went on to start Sapient’s dedicated nonprofit practice, and today, leads Sapient’s Nonprofit Practice -- whose clients include well-known pillars of Washington’s nonprofit and association world as well as global nongovernmental organizations. He’s an active writer and speaker within the industry.

How to Apply Millennial Engagement Insights across the Broader Nonprofit Workforce

Nonprofit TipsThe impact Millennials are having on organizations is being felt around the world and in all industries. The values they place on many aspects of their work and organizational culture differ from other generational groups causing forward-looking organizations to adapt and change. Millennials’ workplace values are similar to those that many nonprofit organizations’ volunteers bring to their work, including a strong alignment with and belief in the organization’s mission and a desire to use their skills in a way that they see as having the greatest impact. In this article we will explore the traits of these two groups and how nonprofits can apply the lessons learned from millennials’ impact on the workplace to their volunteer force.

Personal Experience and Findings

In a recent leadership meeting at my company, Sapient, we were discussing changes to our performance appraisal system. Having grown over the years into a company of over 13,000 people globally, our workforce today is over 70% millennials. Sapient’s forward-looking People Success group (which is similar but not the same as traditional human resources departments) spent time researching and understanding how this group prefers to be mentored and grown and how that is different to what we had done in the past. Based on these findings, we are changing and adapting our entire performance appraisal model to better serve not just millennials but all of our people.

The findings revealed that millennials desire a more personalized approach to career management and growth that is based on their goals and interest areas. As a result, our new model features a more personal, less rigidly-structured program focused on an individual’s development rather than the hard measures and forced rankings that dominate so many traditional performance appraisal systems.

While countless studies have focused on how corporations and nonprofits can engage the millennial generation, what many nonprofits have not yet realized is these same principles can be used to engage their wider volunteer force. In fact, volunteers share many of the same values and drivers with millennials: they desire personalization, transparency, authenticity, a sense of ownership and accountability and face-to-face interaction with those setting organizational goals. By recognizing the similar motivators between these two groups, nonprofits can draw important lessons from available millennial research to better engage and support their volunteer workforce.

Fairness Drives Commitment

A recent study of over 9,000 high school and college students as well as young professionals entitled The Emerging Workforce: Generational Trends (National Society of High School Scholars, 2013) reveals a variety of career-related preferences and attitudes regarding work atmosphere, job-specific opportunities, salary and perks and the employer perception and image. One of the more interesting findings was the degree to which fairness plays in the minds of millennials as related to employers. Survey respondents ranked “treats employees fairly” as far and away the most important factor in the “perception and image” category.

Though not employees, volunteers, like millennials, want to be treated fairly by the organizations to which they’re giving their time. Volunteers may become less effective if a nonprofit is so focused on its outward mission that it overlooks the importance of enabling its volunteers to meet that mission in the first place. For example, volunteers motivated by an organization’s particular cause may find themselves assigned tasks seemingly unrelated to it. This might include doing data entry or other administrative work rather than actually serving the homeless or ministering to sick children. And sometimes organizations rely over and over again on the same trusted set of volunteers – to the point of overburdening them. It’s important for nonprofit leaders to keep this fairness mandate in mind when planning how best to deploy their volunteer talent.

Next Steps for Nonprofit Leaders

Dedication to authenticity is a contributing factor to the establishment of an overriding culture of fairness, so consider building authenticity checks into your normal business processes. Make sure you’re doing what you say you’re doing and holding firm to the commitments and promises reflected in your mission, by including formal checkpoints at your board meetings, in fundraising and strategy sessions and through formal and informal engagement surveys with your volunteers. Your decisions should be made with donor and volunteer perceptions in mind and always in line with the kind of organization you aspire to be.

A Real Connection

A ground-breaking study of millennials’ attitudes toward work conducted by the University of Southern California and the London Business School in concert with PwC found that despite being comfortable with an array of technologies, “When it comes to communication about their career plans and progress, 96% of millennials want to talk face-to-face, just as 95% of their non-millennial counterparts do” (PwC, 2013). While this finding may be counterintuitive to our perception that millennials prefer screen time to face time, it makes sense at the basic level of human behavior. Not only do personal connections provide the meaningful relationships we crave, but in the workplace, they also serve as a sort of implicit or even explicit accountability check. We all perform better when we have accountability partners to help us along our journey: think Alcoholics Anonymous, whose much-celebrated sponsor model promotes both regular, meaningful personal engagement and accountability.

One of the major issues nonprofits face is new volunteers’ perceived disconnect between how they want to contribute and what the organization actually needs them to do. The key to synching volunteer goals with organizational needs is the same two-way dialog employers must have with millennials: establishing a meaningful, ongoing conversation helps build relationships and connections, which in turn fosters a sense of engagement and accountability among the volunteer force. While most volunteers connect on some level with a nonprofit’s general mission, if they also feel a personal dedication to the organization itself, their potential impact increases exponentially.

Next Steps for Nonprofit Leaders

The challenge for nonprofit leaders is establishing the processes and structure that ensure this dialog happens in a genuine and consistent way, so make it a top priority for your organization. Consider pairing experienced volunteers with new ones. They can serve as ambassadors for the organization’s culture and facilitate a connection and dialog between new volunteers and the larger organization.

The volunteer spirit is inspiring and defining and at the core of the nonprofit sector. Volunteers make the nonprofit world go round, and in many cases, these organizations couldn’t exist without them. The lessons we learn from corporate workplace studies can and must be applied by nonprofits, which can leverage the information to help improve the volunteer experience – empowering volunteers to reach their full potential and helping to take your organization to the next level.

Horses and the Moon: Applying Leadership Best Practices, Not Business Best Practices

Nonprofit Leadership AdviceEver played buzzword BINGO to cope with what can sometimes be the drudgery of meetings? “Synergy.” “Out of pocket.” “ Push the Envelope.”

“Best practices.”

Bingo! Nonprofit and public sector leaders are constantly advised to apply “business best practices” to all aspects of their organizations. But what does this really mean? It’s well-meaning advice usually given by someone with a wealth of business experience – but little nonprofit experience. And while there certainly is some value in established best business practices, those that are vaguely applied or applied without proper context rarely provide nonprofits the substance to translate action into desired outcomes.

Businesses have been obsessed with metrics for decades, espousing the mantra “You get what you measure.” While it’s true that if you measure something people will focus on it and work hard to improve that measure, there’s a huge missing piece here. What should an organization measure in the first place and how many metrics are sufficient? These nuanced considerations often leave leaders with just as many questions as they started with.

The concept of learning from other organizations is not a new one – from benchmarking to the ethnographic research of management practices, and even plain old first-hand observation of what works and what doesn’t. Over time, these techniques have produced commonly-held business best practices applied to a wide range of organizations and situations, but in many cases without any foundation in the problem they originally were designed to solve. In the worst cases, these once-grounded best practices devolve into management clichés.

Instead of focusing on business best practices, nonprofits should focus on proven leadership best practices. The following vignettes highlight basic tenets of leadership, which may be more flexible and, therefore, broadly-applied than situation-specific business practices. Instead, these practices are responsive to the unique demands of an organization whose mission isn’t generating shareholder value.

Getting to the Moon and Back: Establish a Vision and Plan for Achieving It

In January 1962 in Houston, President John F. Kennedy gave his “moon speech,” a poetic, soaring call to the nation, proclaiming, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard….”He went on to detail the investments being made, the efforts it would take to get there, and by 1969, Apollo 11, its astronauts – the American people – had landed.

The best leaders are those able to establish a compelling vision, build an actionable plan for realizing that mission, and then tirelessly communicate both. Too often people confuse charisma and passion with vision and miss the true power a coherent vision delivers. Vision statements don’t have to live up to the language of a JFK speech or even be focus-grouped to death, but they do have to be inspirational.

But an inspirational vision in itself isn’t enough. The less-lofty but just-as-critical next step is creating and implementing an actionable plan: hard work, the fruits of which may not be realized for years. Leaders must keep their organizations focused on their vision and the progress they are making toward achieving it. This requires intense and constant communication, accomplished not in the State of the Union but transparently and in real-time every day.

Finding the Horse Guy: Let Your Leaders Lead

There’s a great scene in the 1982 Academy Award-winning movie Gandhi in which Gandhi and his followers are about to be trampled by charging soldiers on horseback. One of Gandhi’s friends instructs everyone to lie down. What’s clear in the scene is that Gandhi knows nothing about horses’ behavior and must decide whether or not to follow one of his leaders, with little time to consider the alternatives. If he defies him he faces a possible massacre. Gandhi chooses to follow, and in this moment we see him grow as a leader.

Potential leaders are buried everywhere in a nonprofit’s organization: on the board, among the staff, in the donor community, and within the volunteer network. With so many sources of potential leaders, a nonprofit executive has to develop a trusted relationship with people who he or she may work with only intermittently. There’s the chance of entrusting someone who doesn’t really know anything about horses, so to speak. To avoid this, many executives instead end up trying to keep control over everything. While this may work for a small department or organization in the short-term, it inevitably leads to burn-out while limiting the potential of the organization and those working in it.

Fortunately, most leaders are not faced with Ghandi’s life-or-death predicament. The challenge, though, is in identifying leaders in the absence of crisis and instead staying attuned to those capable of leading in ways both big and small – especially in areas where your own skills and knowledge are lacking.

Finally, one of the hardest things all leaders must do is say “no.” Ideas, initiatives, meetings – even the most worthy of those can be distractions. But saying no to something often triggers the fear of missing out: on good candidates, good ideas, good advice. That’s when a good leader channels both JFK and Ghandi, relying on the established  vision to guide the way, the action plan to filter the “could” from the “should,” and the organization’s other leaders to help make it all happen.  Instead of relying on a la carte business-oriented practices that may or may not address your challenges, nonprofits can apply the universal leadership lessons discussed above to their distinct issues – and perhaps find that leadership best practices are what make business best practices in the first place.


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