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4 Myths about Young People and Nonprofit Work

Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Sector Research
Human Resources

There is a widespread perception that nonprofits face a looming leadership crisis. Many senior leaders are expected to retire in coming years, and we are increasingly aware that most organizations do not have a succession plan in place. However, this is perhaps only the most top of mind talent challenge facing nonprofits. As big a problem as leadership succession, is ensuring that nonprofits can attract and retain young workers in the early stages of their careers.

Anecdotally, we see young nonprofit workers leaving the sector for other opportunities, but we don’t fully understand why. With this in mind, we conducted a series of exploratory interviews with thirteen young nonprofit workers in their early and mid-careers. In these conversations, they offered perspectives on a number of common myths they believe are hurting nonprofits’ ability to attract and retain young staff.

Myth 1: Young people need to pay their dues.

Participants viewed themselves as having paid their dues and then some. Most said their entry into nonprofit work had been through a series of volunteer roles, internships, and short-term contracts, all in the hopes of securing stable employment. They noted that traditional entry-level positions have increasingly been replaced by this type of unpaid and precarious work. The net effect is that nonprofit employers demand far more of young employees, in terms of work experience and commitment to the cause, than ever before.

Opportunity for employers:

When accessing nonprofit employment is this difficult, young people are worn down before they even begin working, and organizations miss out on great candidates that can’t jump over these hurdles. One way nonprofits can offset some of the instability and precarity young workers face is through open communication. Employers can tell staff why their contract is short-term – is it because of the terms of a grant or because the organization faces funding issues? Is the employee being tested before being offered a more permanent role? This kind of clarity helps workers understand the organization’s commitment and allows them to plan for the future. In turn, organizations will benefit from greater employee loyalty and trust.

Myth 2: Young workers have unrealistic salary expectations.

To the contrary, the young workers we interviewed were very mindful of their organization’s financial realities. What they struggled with was the sense that salaries were static and job demands ever increasing. Meanwhile, many are unable to afford reasonable life expenses like child-rearing, home ownership, or saving for retirement, and they see little prospect of being able to do so. In fact, most participants relied on financial support from their family and partners, and said their ability to continue working in nonprofits over the long-term was uncertain. They expressed particular concern about long-term consequences for the sector and society if only young people with privilege can afford to work in nonprofits.

Opportunity for employers:

Acquiring new staff can be costly, with the expenses of hiring, training, and getting staff up to speed all adding up. Organizations can help retain talent by ensuring that employees at all career and life stages can afford reasonable life expenses. Even modest salary increases to reflect growing responsibilities can improve an individual’s finances, and offer a sense that their earning potential isn’t completely static. At a minimum, organizations can communicate with staff about how salaries are decided and the factors that might make salary increases possible. Ideally, when creating new positions, organizations should plan for salary increases that will reflect an employee’s growth with the organization.

Myth 3: Young workers prefer flexible work.

Gotcha - it’s not a myth, it’s actually true. Many participants placed a high value on flexibility – such as the ability to work remotely or work flexible hours. That said, flexibility without proper support from an employer caused stress and disengagement. Flexibility doesn’t replace employment stability, and can actually make an employee feel that an organization isn’t serious about their commitment to them.

Opportunity for employers:

Young workers appreciate flexible working conditions, but not when flexibility feels like ambiguity. When adopting flexible working arrangements, consider the unique challenges they present. For example, some participants noted that flexibility around their work schedule resulted in them working at all hours. Some also noted that working remotely made it difficult for them to collaborate with their colleagues. Additionally, be sensitive to the possibility that permanent and contract workers will experience these challenges differently. Again, communication is key.

Myth 4: Young workers leave the nonprofit sector because other opportunities are more attractive.

There is a widespread perception that when young employees leave, it’s because they’ve been seduced by better opportunities in other sectors. However, participants overwhelmingly described a process of feeling pushed out of the nonprofit sector, rather than being enticed by other opportunities. They cited factors such as inadequate HR management, challenging organizational cultures, lack of clarity around job responsibilities, and limited training and career development as driving a feeling that at some point they would need to seek opportunities in government or business.

Opportunity for employers:

Small improvements, many of which don’t require financial resources, such as open communication and creating a people-focused workplace culture, can improve young workers’ experiences and help them stay in the nonprofit sector. Knowing that young workers feel pushed out of nonprofits rather than seduced by other opportunities strengthens the case for why nonprofits should take incremental steps to improve working conditions. It really isn’t inevitable that young people leave nonprofits for other sectors.

Decent work isn’t a myth.

Improving young nonprofit workers’ experiences is an important way to help the nonprofit sector meet its talent challenges. A key way to accomplish this is by making decent jobs the norm for our sector – jobs where work is stable, fairly compensated, and provides opportunities for growth. Pay equity, while an essential dimension of decent work, is far from the only factor. At the heart of improving young workers’ experiences is a genuine commitment to open communication between employees and the organizations they work for.


To learn more about this subject, look for the full research report, coming in spring 2017.


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Submitted by Randal Heide on
Maybe my experience isn't relevant to the current generation, but I chose to spend the first five years of my career in the non-profit sector because I saw that while the pay was poor, the opportunity to take on responsibility and gain meaningful management experience was much greater than I ever could have hoped for in an entry level for-profit position. I had every intention of leaving the non-profit sector once I had built up my resume, and I did - the strategy worked very well for me. And now, in my 50's, I'm back as a leader of a non-profit, again working for less but happy to put the skills I gained in the for-profit sector to work for the cause.

Submitted by Lois Graveline on
Great article and insight into the mindset of young fundraising professionals. Equal consideration should be paid to the other end of the employee spectrum - meaning I believe we have to do a better job of recruiting CEOs who are experienced fundraisers and not just the ones who demonstrate a certain business prowess. Most of the challenges our young people face within the profession stem from a lack of understanding and appreciation for what fundraising and the charitable sector truly is about.

Submitted by CJ on
This article resonates with me as my dream of having a career in the non-profit sector has mostly fizzled out. I have an MA in international development, speak 4 languages well enough to use them for work tasks, IT skills, people skills and loads of international experience. After completing my MA I made over 200 job applications. I eventually got a 6 month volunteer gig abroad, then a 4 month internship, one 3-month writing contract and 6 months at a non-profit business that had no charitable or humanitarian goals. I ended up teaching English abroad to pay off my student debt and now feel quite bitter about the entire non-profit sector as I was a top candidate who never got a job. It seems the people I know who got jobs were those with corporate experience who could easily detach themselves from the human factors of the cause and simply work with the numbers. That being said, knowing that the people who didn't see my potential are retiring soon makes me want to consider trying again.

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