The Future of Nonprofits: Developing Generation Y

Progressive change can only happen through a concerted, sustained commitment. Everyday community-based and other nonprofit organizations work to improve citizens’ lives, and our work is critical to the health of the communities we serve – whether at the local, regional, national or international level. Providing support for nonprofit staff at all levels is, therefore, vital, no more so than for our emerging leaders.

Progressive change can only happen through a concerted, sustained commitment. Everyday community-based and other nonprofit organizations work to improve citizens’ lives, and our work is critical to the health of the communities we serve – whether at the local, regional, national or international level. Providing support for nonprofit staff at all levels is, therefore, vital, no more so than for our emerging leaders.

A series of studies* issued between 1999 and 2004 by foundations throughout the United States suggest that there are not enough nonprofit staff being readied to take the place of the current executive level leaders who plan to retire in the next decade. To ensure that the nonprofit sector remains effective, we need to focus now on recruiting and then guiding young people through the nonprofit landscape to become effective leaders.

A Brave, Brash New Workforce

According to a November 2006 post on, the members of Generation Y** are “smart, brash, wear flip-flops to the office and listen to iPods at their desk. They want to work, but they don’t want work to be their life.” This can sometimes put these young workers at odds with their older baby boomer counterparts, who are famous for their devotion to work and expectation that their employees will also want to regularly work a 40+ hour week.

For all of you supervisors of Gen Yers, whose commitment to the common good has brought them to the nonprofit sector: Never fear. You can help them grow professionally as capable, nonprofit individuals with some tips gleaned from Young Global Leaders Summit: The Next Generation of Global Partnerships, held on Wednesday, June 13, 2007, at the NonProfit Center in Boston.

Motivating Members of Generation Y

Well over 50 college students and young professionals gathered for the summit, a daylong networking event organized by Americans for Informed Democracy (AID). AID is a nonpartisan 501(c)3 organization that, among its varied activities, hosts leadership retreats to develop a new generation of globally conscious leaders for our increasingly interdependent world.

The summit’s first speaker, Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center and a professor at Tufts University, spoke of grassroots and nonprofits as organizations originally created to contain crises throughout the world. As he spoke to the young people in the audience, it became apparent that they are motivated to be part of the nonprofit sector by their compassion for those who are suffering, a sense of idealism for the way the world should be, and the desire to change the world in a step-by-step process.

Jonathan Moore, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for George H.W. Bush, added to Walker’s comments and spoke to the need for young people in nonprofits to know how everyone and everything fits in the grand scheme of meeting your mission.

What does this mean for supervisors of Gen Y staff?

  • While many boomers and others excel in unstructured environments, Gen Y workers will want detailed workplans with specific goals at each step and tight deadlines. Remember this is the generation that was tightly scheduled from school to sports to dance and piano lessons growing up.

  • Additionally, these staff members expect to be consulted about the ways in which they can contribute to the solutions developed by your team. Unlike Boomers and Gen Xers, they do not see why they should remain silent about their ideas and “pay their dues” before being a major player on your team. So while they may need more experience before making the final decision, listen to their ideas and glean the best from this tech-savvy, Internet-informed generation.

  • Also, while you’ve always kept mission front and center with staff, Gen Y staff need to see the mission reflected in all that you do with them from orientation to evaluations to staff meeting conversations.

  • Give your Gen Y workers an opportunity to interact with those they are serving as much as possible to help them maintain their idealism and sense of commitment.

  • As a supervisor, you should let your Gen Y staff member know exactly how his or her position and work fits into your nonprofit organization’s mission to improve society. Feeling valued and knowing his or her role creates a sense of purpose that will keep her or him eager to learn and contribute.

Saving Lives and Doing Paperwork

Lily Cho, contributor to
this article and a Gen Y

Also speaking at the Young Global Leaders Summit, Susan Foster, professor of international health at Boston University and director of public policy at the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, spoke of her work on the economics of infectious diseases in Africa. Aside from the hands-on grass-roots work of administering medical tests and preventive measures, she explained that her work – as in most nonprofit jobs – involves a lot of paperwork to handle the costs and transparent information required by foundations and individual donors. 

Therefore, as you recruit and orient your Generation Y staff members about all aspects of your organization’s mission, be sure to make clear the amount of and need for the administrative and bureaucratic work. He should know not only how he is going to help programmatically, but also the relevancy of his current administrative tasks to the organization’s goals.

Expecting and Respecting Diversity

Diversity is one of the goals of many organizations, diversity based on race, ethnic group, sexual identity, worldview and more. When the young leaders asked questions of the U.N. ambassadors at the July summit, they gained perspectives on current events influenced by cultural values from different places from Turkmenistan to China to Iraq.

According to, Generation Y is the most diverse generation ever in the United States. And they expect and respect diversity in the workplace more than their predecessors. One in three Gen Yers is a person of color.

  • Given the diversity of this generation, you will need to encourage your emerging leaders to be open-minded and accepting of diverse cultures and practices.

  • It is especially important that you provide training and other opportunities for your other workers to embrace diversity and appreciate the way it builds the capacity of your organization to work more effectively in the world.

Understanding Different Worldviews

Another characteristic that surfaced at the Young Global Leaders Summit was the willingness of the youthful audience to question the views of the presenters and assertively express their own opinions in Q and A sessions and small group settings. An especially lively exchange took place during the presentation on the economic policies between the United States and China. Presenters noted that it was inspiring to see intelligent, socially-conscious young people question the words they have heard, read or seen in the media.

  • What does this mean for you, as a nonprofit supervisor of Gen Y staff? Encourage this staff to speak their inquisitive minds. And as a team, discuss the framework and parameters for this type of free-wheeling conversation, so that Boomers and Gen Xers can maintain their “cool” during these exchanges.

  • Also, create a workplan for your team and for your Gen Y staffers that builds in the flexibility for and regular feedback by your Generation Y staff, who are much less likely to respond to the traditional top-down management still the norm in most workplaces, including many nonprofit organizations.

Final Thoughts

Generation Y staffers at nonprofits have high expectations for the world, your organization and themselves, and our collective ability to make the world better. They expect to contribute to the mission of the organization from the outset and have the ability to do so. They are, according to, a generation of multitaskers that can juggle e-mail on their BlackBerrys while talking on cellphones while trolling online.

So give them flexibility within the framework of specific deadlines and goals, telecommuting options and the ability to share their ideas, and you will have stellar employees and help to build the next generation of our nonprofit leadership.

With contributions by Lily Cho, summer communications intern

* These studies include Executive Director Tenure and Transition in Southern New England, released by the New England Executive Transitions Partnership, in January 2004. The study led to the creation of the Executive Transitions Program currently at TSNE.

**Generation Y Defined: The broadest definition generally includes the more than 70 million Americans born 1977 to 2002. Generation X was born roughly 1965 to 1976.

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