Nonprofit 411: The Social Sector Generational Shift

By Irwin Nesoff, Associate Professor and Chair of Nonprofit Leadership & Policy, Wheelock College

Irwin Nesoff As the leading edge of the millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, make their presence felt in the work place, the leading edge of the boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, heads into retirement. This demographic shift creates both challenges and opportunities for social sector organizations. While boomers are the leaders of a large number of social sector organizations, vast changes in politics, funding and technology is changing the way the sector functions.

With the entry of the millennials, many workplaces have staff spanning three generations, all growing up in uniquely different times and circumstances. The different decades that these generations came of age has impacted their worldview and approach to work and careers. The challenge facing organizations is how to engage and retain millennials so that they can help strengthen the organization, capitalizing on their unique talents.

Research identifies certain characteristics shared by millennials. Some of these include: Self-perception of high self-worth; needing help in decision making; comfortable friendly approach with elders, supervisors and managers; goal oriented with high expectations; and, entrepreneurial. Once on the job, expectations may include: direct access to management; opportunities for professional development and growth; a satisfying work environment; and, an expectation of frequent contact with management and leadership. Additionally, research shows that millennials receive information quickly from multiple sources, they are comfortable multi-tasking, prefer to work in peer groups, seek work-life balance, have little tolerance for delays, are comfortable with change and, have an expectation of regular and positive feedback.

As this new workforce begins to fill the organizational ranks it can lay the foundation for a battle of the generations or can be seen as an opportunity to welcome their unique talents and perspectives. Change is inevitable, it can be welcomed or it can be resisted. Welcoming this change as a way to move the sector forward may not be easy as it will require both personal change for staff used to doing things a certain way, and it will require change at the most basic levels of organizational culture.

A road map to positive change requires a willingness to view the organization with a fresh pair of eyes. This can include developing an organizational culture of work groups that allows staff to come together across silos to share insights and develop new ideas.

Other changes can include:

  • Creating opportunities for ideas to percolate up, eliminating barriers that limit the impact of fresh ideas
  • Creating opportunities for timely feedback, not waiting for formal evaluations
  • Rewarding both effort and success

If we reward only success and not effort, staff will be reluctant to try new ideas fearing failure. The culture of the organization must move beyond “this is how we do it, because this is how we have always done it.”

Additional cultural shifts may include opportunities for flex-time to support work-life balance, welcoming new employees in tangible ways such as providing business cards on their first day (a small but significant gesture), and setting up a meeting with the CEO soon after new employee begins.

Social sector organizations must become flexible and poised for change to survive and thrive. Welcoming millennials and shifting the culture will help build a strong foundation to move into the future.

Irwin Nesoff is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership and Policy. Prior to joining the faculty at Wheelock, he was a member of the social work faculty at Kean University in Union, New Jersey for 13 years. He received his Masters of Social Work degree from the Hunter College School of Social Work and his Doctorate in Social Welfare from the City University of New York Graduate Center. He has also taught in the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Pubic Service of NYU, and earned a certificate in nonprofit management from Columbia University.