Here is the text of an op-ed I penned for the Chronicle of Philanthropy this week:
The millennials are coming! The millennials are coming! In hallways, boardrooms, and conference calls across the nonprofit world, this warning cry is ringing out.
But too many in the nonprofit world forget that the millennials are already here. They are the people born from 1982 through the late 1990s dominating the world around us. They outnumber the baby boomers who are alive today.
Not preparing for and welcoming the millennials is more than a missed opportunity. It is a significant and perhaps devastating error in judgment by traditional organizations because they need millennials more than the millennials need them. If they are unhappy with their reception by nonprofit organizations, they will simply start their own efforts — overnight, online, at almost no cost.
Millennials are fascinating for how they work (collaboratively); what they believe (that they can make the world a better place); and how they are living (immersed in causes).
Their signature characteristic is their digital fluency. They are uniquely comfortable using a wide variety of social-media tools like cellphones, e-mail, Web sites, blogs, and text messaging, enabling them to spread information widely, quickly, and inexpensively. Their passion and skills combined with their digital dexterity create challenges for more traditional nonprofit organizations.
The nonprofit world that the millennials are entering has matured in its use of social media to connect large networks of supporters. Just a few years ago, only those organizations that were created with connectedness as part of their DNA, like the Genocide Intervention Network and Mobilize.org, were able to thrive in this new era. While the reaction from more traditional organizations was “Do we really have to know about this stuff?,” today the more likely question is “How do we begin?”
And that’s where millennials come in. They know how and where to start using social media for social change. Now nonprofit groups need to let them in, and the best way to do that is to understand the different roles millennials are starting to play as:
Employees. I often hear millennials complain that they are not listened to within their own organizations.
It is not uncommon to hear young people say they feel underappreciated within institutions, but these millennial complaints have more traction than those of previous generations.
Millennials have grown up intently listened to by their parents and teachers, creating a sense of confidence in their own opinions. They are also accustomed to talking online in venues that support open, free-flowing conversations and opinions.
What’s more, their digital adeptness gives them a set of skills and a sense of powerfulness that are unmatched by older colleagues.
Millennials join organizations with an expertise that is important and needed. For all of those reasons, millennial staff members need to be listened to and provided opportunities for meaningful participation in an organization’s key conversations about strategy and operations.
Volunteers. Millennials are passionate about causes and, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, are volunteering in record numbers beginning in middle school and continuing thereafter.
Organizations accustomed to top-down hierarchical dictates of when and how volunteers will participate will lose with millennials.
Those that allow them to be creative and have a greater sense of ownership in the cause will be more successful.
The best recent example of these different styles is the difference between the Clinton (top-down) and Obama (bottom-up) campaigns.
Activists. Regardless of how traditional organizations change or act, millennials will support their causes in their own ways, and that will mean often working outside of institutions. Thousands of people can use Facebook to support ending the genocide in Darfur, without necessarily supporting a specific organization.
One can look at this landscape and see a sea of competitors for money and attention — or one can see a field of potential partners, regardless of their size or credentials, that can be knit together into a successful ecosystem of supporters.
How can nonprofit groups embrace the millennials?
The first thing they need to do is show them some respect. I often hear older people and organizations dismiss young people as flighty multitaskers. These young people are vitally important to the nation’s future, but they often feel uninvited to the nonprofit party. They have a great deal to teach organizations and older people about organizing using social media and about working in open, nonproprietary ways, but they will only do so if they are listened to and respected.
The Salvation Army has taken steps in this direction recently, including adding a board seat for a young person.
Nonprofit organizations can also assign their young interns and staff members to take responsibility for using specific social networks to generate interest in their causes; that will be a lot more beneficial to them and the organization than answering the phones and making copies.
Organizations need to teach millennials to become “network weavers,” a term coined by two experts in social-network analysis — Valdes Krebs and June Holley — that refers to the creation of social networks that have a specific purpose beyond just their social relations.
While young people already know how to connect with their peers, very few of them understand what it takes to deliberately create networks that promote social change. As a model, nonprofit groups may want to look at the progress made by Lance Bennett, a professor of communication at the University of Washington, in an effort called Engaged Youth, which is teaching young people in Seattle to use their digital skills to solve social problems.
Almost invariably, the first question posed by many nonprofit leaders is: “What is the best tool to reach young people?”
There is no one silver-bullet blog or Web site. Organizations must stop looking for the “killer app” to connect with millennials and start examining their own organizational culture. They must ask themselves:
- Why do you want to connect with them?
- What conversation do you want to have with them?
- How open are you to listening to them?
- What will you allow them to do that you don’t feel you have to control?
Answering those questions may require some real soul searching. Once that’s done, it is time to start talking with the millennials wherever they are — in person through the Meetup Web site, through blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook — and listen to what they are saying and be ready to make changes to work with them more openly and honestly.
Nonprofit groups also need to teach young people why advocacy and policy change are a vital part of creating long-term systemic change.
When schools started requiring community service in the late 1980s, they dropped civic education. Focus groups conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, at Tufts University, found that students didn’t have a negative view of government and public policy like their boomer parents may have — they had no view and opinion at all.
Perhaps worse, they had no place to explore their views and learn more either on or off their campuses. Nonprofit organizations need to create ways for young people to explore issues and ideas.
However, organizations beware, millennials are very clear that they don’t want to be “sold” on issues. Advocates with set ideas on their issues, who just want to recruit younger participants to their cause without real discussion, should spend their time elsewhere.
Young people are engaged in promoting charitable causes in very large numbers as volunteers, staff members, and social entrepreneurs. But as a recent study by the research company Synovate reported, still millions more, particularly black and Hispanic girls, aren’t hooked in and networked. It is up to nonprofit groups to get more young people involved.
Millions of millennials are passionately engaged in causes, though not necessarily connected to specific nonprofit organizations. Millions more regularly practice their own form of citizenship using the tools and processes of democracy (e.g., sharing information, circulating petitions, mobilizing people) to voice their concern about or interest in items that are central to their lives, such as the cancellation of a TV show or organizing friends to attend the opening of a new restaurant.
Those aren’t trivial activities; they represent the latent power of millennials to use their own tools and voices for social-change efforts.
The challenge for nonprofit groups is to invite all of these young people, those already engaged and those who could be engaged, to learn more about their efforts, and to help shape and drive them. The needs of nonprofit groups and the people they serve are great — and they can be matched by the great capacity of the millennials.
Allison Fine is a senior fellow at Demos, a New York think tank, and author of “Social Citizens (beta),” a publication released by the Case Foundation, in Washington. This article is based on that publication; the full version is available online.