How Associations Can Make a Match With Millennials

Gen Y is grown up now, and looking for legitimate leadership roles to match. That means casting off some assumptions about what they need, and perhaps how you manage your volunteer structure.

With the unemployment rate low, this can be a tough time for associations and nonprofits to sell themselves as appealing workplaces, especially for millennials. The pay and perks are often lower, as is prestige.

But not all is lost, a recent study suggests. “Millennials + Work” [PDF], produced by the strategy firm Department26, includes a number of findings that speak directly to what makes the nonprofit space attractive. Millennials, often disappointed by bad early jobs and high college debt, are looking for places where they can believe in a mission: 44 percent of respondents say their top priority in a new job is “being in a role they’re passionate about,” edging out “salary” at 42 percent.

And, because they’re itchy to make an impact fast, they’re looking for opportunities for promotion and new learning opportunities, something the Land of Many Hats is often well-equipped to provide. The cliche about millennials is that they’re itchy to leave their workplaces, but half of the study’s respondents say they hope to stay in their next job for five years or more. That said, slightly more than half (51 percent) also expect to be promoted within two years. “When they can’t see a tangible impact, when there’s no path in sight, or when more is expected without some sort of reward,” says the report, “they find no qualms in cutting their losses.”

Millennials don’t believe in money. They believe in themselves.

That’s good news for associations who want to bring millennials into their ranks, but that will involve shaking off a few stereotypes about the generation as well—after all, the larger culture has been wringing their hands over millennials for a decade now, enough time for them to settle down into careers. “Contrary to what people believe, they aren’t afraid of criticism,” study author Betsy Wecker told CNN late last month. “They are actually looking for feedback.” Moreover, they’re not as flighty as they’ve been perceived, and indeed seek stability and direction out of their bosses. “They are looking for really strong leadership with audacious goals,” says Wecker.

In the context of associations, last November, Lisa Campo of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages discussed some of the mistakes associations make when hiring millennials in a brief, entertainingly snarky video (I’m tempted to think she’s a gen X-er in disguise):

TL;DW: Associations err when they assume all millennial hires are able or eager to manage your social media presence; when associations neglect their online reputation and presence; and get stingy with incentives, benefits, and professional growth opportunities.

Even if you’re not hiring at the moment, many of the lessons here can apply to how you manage your organization, especially volunteer roles. A few years back, association pros Peggy Hoffman, CAE, and Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, published a white paper, “The Mission-Driven Volunteer,” [PDF] which argued for the importance of shaking up the staid, wait-your-turn leadership ladder. “While younger, upcoming generations are  willing and enthusiastic volunteers,” they wrote, “they seek different  kinds of volunteer experiences that their predecessors, ones that are less about structure, position, and prestige, and are focused instead on independence, meaning, impact, and ‘getting it done,’ none of which are easily accommodated by the traditional committee model.”

That all remains true, but at the time I argued that the self-selecting “adhocracies” that Hoffman and Engel prescribed wouldn’t succeed without the firm hand of the association leader creating the opportunity for these new leadership groups to take shape. As the Department26 report points out, millennials are a generation that became risk-averse after spending their early 20s in an economic downturn while accruing college debt—telling them to be entrepreneurial about leadership structures is likely to fall on deaf ears. But creating an environment where those same volunteers know that what they contribute will be heard and has a lot of potential to have an impact—that’s a stronger pitch.

“Millennials don’t believe in money,” Wecker told CNN. “They believe in themselves.” I don’t entirely buy that—as Lisa Campo points out, people will see through any scheme the promotes a “fun environment” without a decent salary to match. But the eagerness to believe in something is valid, and associations are in a unique position to support that, from the headquarters to the boardroom.

What do you do to attract millennials into staff and leadership roles at your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.

(sturti/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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