How to Apply Millennial Engagement Insights across the Broader Nonprofit Workforce

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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.




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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.

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