April 27, 2009

Conference Notebook: Young People Urged Not to Give Up on Nonprofit Careers

The economic crisis is shaking up the nonprofit world in ways that are making it more difficult for young workers to find jobs but could also present them with new and unusual opportunities to advance, said speakers and participants at a conference here that wrapped up on Saturday.

“Business as usual is out,” said Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector. “You may have thought that long before the economic crisis, but now you’ll have a lot of executives who will be interested in the kinds of solutions you have in mind. This is the time for creativity and innovation.”

Nearly 200 nonprofit workers, most in their 20s and 30s, attended the annual conference of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. Sessions that focused on how young people can advance their careers and work effectively with people of other generations were similar to those at the network’s past year’s conferences, but they took on a darker hue because of the economy.

Speakers said that the sour economy is leaving some employers more open to the sort of feedback Ms. Aviv described but causing others to hunker down and enter survival mode. They encouraged young workers to push their employers to look for new approaches and embrace risky ideas.

Helping their bosses discover new technology is one way for younger employees to shine, speakers said. But Frances Kunreuther, who leads the Building Movement Project, which seeks to strengthen social-change organizations, said she worried that nonprofit leaders were taking a too-narrow view of the contributions younger employees can make and that they need to more fundamentally restructure their organizations to cultivate young leadership.

“When we think about multigenerational organizations, most people are thinking about millennials who ‘tweet,’” she said, referring to Twitter, the social-media site that allows people to send short updates on what they are doing and thinking to people who sign up for their profile.

Ms. Kunreuther encouraged the audience to think about other ways the nonprofit world would change over the next year or two. She described how donors today are less interested in how “unique” a charity is and more interested in how it is working with other organizations to produce change.

“That language is going to be completely different over the next year,” she said.

Leadership Gap

She and other speakers talked about the much-publicized “leadership gap” at nonprofit groups. The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit organization, published a survey last week that said that 28 percent of charities have plans to fill senior-level positions this year.

While some speakers said the leadership gap would mean more jobs for young people, others talked about whether the bad economy was shrinking that gap or whether it ever really existed at all.

“We’re not seeing it,” said Ms. Kunreuther. She described how older workers who had left the nonprofit world for other jobs were migrating back to nonprofit groups and how graduate programs in nonprofit management were seeing a big jump in applicants.

But others talked about how the economic crisis could present new opportunities. Rick Moyers, director of programs at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, said some younger workers are getting “cool new jobs” because seasoned employees are leaving their positions or have been laid off.

“That’s not the best way to get professional development opportunities, but it’s a way,” he said. Mr. Moyers said he was promoted just a few months ago because his predecessor left for another organization and the Meyer Foundation couldn’t afford to hire anyone new.

Executive directors are under massive stress right now because of the economy, he said, and some are simply walking away from their jobs. “This crisis is like the straw that broke their backs,” he said.

Other speakers urged young workers to enter nonprofit work now, even in a job that is far less than ideal, because when the economy rebounds, the opportunities for growth will be big.

Speakers also fielded questions from young people who worried that executive directors and other top leaders were never going to retire. Glen O’Gilvie, chief executive of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, said there was no easy way to approach a conversation about succession planning, which he described as almost as delicate a subject as talking planned giving with board members.

“I think what helps make leaders feel they can leave is when their organization is stable,” he said.

Don’t Give Up

Young people attending the conference also heard another refrain: Don’t leave the nonprofit world, even though times are tough. People in their 20s and 30s are often considered “sector hoppers,” unwilling or uninterested in staying in one job or one type of organization for too long.

Speakers said they were concerned that the economic crisis and the strain it is putting on workers will accelerate that trend. But never in recent memory has the nonprofit world needed good leaders as much as it does today, said Independent Sector’s Ms. Aviv.

“We need smart, connected people who are interested in making the world a better place,” she said. Ms. Aviv said she understands just how challenging the work is, ending her speech with a poem entitled, “I’m Tired, I’m Whipped.”

But as young people think about career options, Ms. Aviv said, “Think about the difference you’re making.”

Ms. Aviv also cautioned the nonprofit world against going the way of the South African wine industry during apartheid, when it lost its edge by not being able to trade with and learn from winemakers in other countries. Ms. Aviv, who grew up in South Africa, said she was worried that charities were cutting travel costs, subscriptions, and training.

“If you don’t know what others are doing, you don’t move forward,” she said.

Obama’s Role

Speakers also discussed other big trends affecting the charity world, including the Obama administration’s approach to nonprofit issues.

Ms. Aviv discussed the administration’s proposal to limit deductions that wealthy people can take for their charitable donations. Her group has said the plan would dampen giving, but Ms. Aviv said she hoped the nonprofit world could have a broader debate about the sacrifices wealthier taxpayers will have to make to pay for the sorts of social programs that many in the nonprofit world would like to see.

“We need to have a serious conversation about the revenue side and what price we’re willing to pay to have the revenue to do the kind of works we do,” she said, encouraging young people to get involved in those discussions. “Too often we’re focused in our self-interest.”

The mood at the conference was sober but hopeful. During an exercise in which participants were asked to stand between two ends of the conference room based on how optimistic or pessimistic they were about the nonprofit world’s future, most chose a place in the middle.

Conference participants, some of whom had recently been laid off, said they were concerned that the nonprofit world was shedding jobs and that charities were closing. But they said they were encouraged by President Obama’s emphasis on service.

Among other advice offered at the conference:

Graduate school will get you a second look. Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington, described how he recently received more than 200 resumes for a job that paid $32,000. With so many applications to wade through, he said, “a good program will provide a leg up.” Wait at least two years before starting a new charity. Mr. O’Gilvie said now is not the time to be a fresh face approaching foundations. While opportunities to go to conferences and get additional training are generally viewed as an early casualty of hard economic times, some speakers said they were investing more in professional development as they lay off staff members and give remaining employees new responsibilities. “My commitment to professional development in 2009 is greater than my commitment in 2008,” said Tamara Lucas Copeland, president of Washington Grantmakers.

Many people at the conference said they were committed to the field, although some spoke of frustrating experiences within their organizations.

A few people who started their careers with arts groups said they planned to broaden their skills so they could find jobs with organizations that were on more-solid financial footing.

After losing a job and witnessing a merger go awry, Emily Martin of Grand Rapids, Mich., said she was probably going to leave nonprofit work, perhaps for a job in government.

“I see a lot of problems that will have a hard time being addressed in this economy,” she said, citing how understaffed some organizations were and how little room there was for growth.