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Can nonprofits attract (and retain) Millennials?

September 6, 2012

Occasionally, a former colleague in the for-profit sector solicits my advice on transitioning into nonprofit work. Without fail, they’re fed up with corporate work and want to feel as though they’re fulfilling a greater purpose, whatever that amorphous purpose might be; they simply want to do well by doing good.

*If I were as smart as Nathaniel Koloc and Evan Walden, I would’ve recognized this as a potential business opportunity and launched my own search firm that caters to Millennials like my former colleagues, as Koloc and Walden have done.*

The doing well by doing good meme requires interrogation and I try to do just that when folks seek out my advice on this issue. I might ask: Does “doing good” outweigh your desire for challenging work, recognition, increasing responsibility, or personal growth? And if not, where does “doing good” fall in your hierarchy of motivators?

I’ve found that people are generally attracted to nonprofit work because of a desire to “do good” or because they’re passionate about particular issues, such as arts education or homelessness. Passion and the desire to do good usually supersede things like compensation, work conditions and status. But as Justin Steele points out, these factors don’t lead to burn out or job dissatisfaction. Burn out occurs from unfulfilled motivational factors–a lack of challenging work, recognition, responsibility, personal growth, etc. Why should this matter to nonprofits?

Steele, a former management consultant turned executive at the phenomenal nonprofit Year Up, identifies how the nonprofit starvation cycle makes it difficult for nonprofit workers to fulfill their “path to motivation”; generally speaking, the starvation cycle forces nonprofits to be risk-averse, stagnant and devoid of professional development opportunities–it’s a recipe for unrewarding, repetitive and dull work experiences, professional stagnation and lack of recognition or positive reaffirmation.

Obviously, this doesn’t describe every nonprofit, and having unfulfilled motivational factors can occur in any sector or industry. But “doing good” isn’t exactly the panacea many of my former colleagues believe it to be; it’s just one of many motivators. If you’re dissatisfied with your job because you find it boring, a dead end and it goes without appreciation, transitioning into a nonprofit won’t remedy your dissatisfaction.

And just because you’re passionate about helping the poor doesn’t mean you’re willing to stunt your professional growth or stifle your creativity to do so. Or maybe you discover you’re not as passionate about helping the poor as you thought…what then?

When nonprofits satisfy employee motivators beyond “doing good,” they’re wonderful destinations for Millennials (and Gen Xers and all generations). Lacking resources, it has to be a matter of prioritization. It could be a matter of implementing some of Dan Schawbel’s suggestions for motivating Millennials or evolving beyond the “dead, ill-informed, outdated” DO-MANAGE-LEAD model of professional progression. But it all needs to start with a recognition that “doing good” isn’t nearly good enough.


From → Non-Profits

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