By Courtney Clark
How the young workers of today got labeled the Slacker Generation is a mystery. From the time we could toddle, we’ve been bombarded by messages from society at large, competing for our time and attention to the latest cause. We’re the “We Are The World” generation. It was OUR hands that crossed America. We were raised to Heal the World and buy pink everything.
We’ve been inundated with asks. Swamped with solicitations. In our parents’ generation, you gave to your community when your neighbors whispered in your ear about a need. But WE grew up with star-studded specials, songs, commercials, direct mail, email, pop-up ads and Twitter campaigns all competing for our dollar and our sweat equity. Is it any wonder we’re overwhelmed when it comes to choosing our cause?
But don’t confuse our distraction for inaction. More than 42 percent of us volunteer, according to the Civic Health in Hard Times national report, outpacing the Boomer generation’s 35 percent. And those statistics also show that our history of supporting causes looks a lot like our professional resume – we tend to have a little bit of experience in a lot of different sectors, rather than commit to one nonprofit or employer and stay loyal for life.
So with all the noise and competing needs out there, what do today’s Xers and Millenials have to have in order to be pinned down, commit to a cause, and have a satisfying (and hopefully long term) community service experience?
This is a group attracted to grassroots action, because that’s what we’ve been seeing with our own two eyes since our childhood. It isn’t just that we want to do the work; we also like the instant recognition and positive feedback that comes with those kinds of immediate, engaging campaigns. It’s also very important to the young generation to be able to volunteer with a flexible schedule, and we find it most rewarding to give back using our professional skills, so a fast way to capture a young volunteer is to ask for their help in their area of expertise.
All of those nice-to-haves, though, won’t keep a volunteer for long if their core needs aren’t being met. This generation has three deal breakers when it comes to making a service commitment, and anyone hoping to engage them has to incorporate these needs when they plan to start recruiting young volunteers. First, we prefer our charitable experiences to have a group dynamic. This generation of volunteers is more likely to commit when they know they won’t be working as a lone wolf. Second, we also appreciate the chance to make decisions and not just execute commands, so the more autonomy you can give this group, the better. You might just be surprised when you leave it up to them, they’ll tackle the very task you were dreading! Finally, and most importantly, we need to see the impact of our assistance and touch the mission with our own two hands. Our generation has practically been defined by the tabloid-esque exposure of lies from higher-ups, so we may not have the same innate trust as our predecessors. Take us on a behind-the-scenes tour of your space, introduce us to clients, show us some metrics, and let us see how our own personal contribution helped. You’ll win us over to the cause by showing us both the heart and the brain of the organization.
No one can support every cause, though, no matter how compelled we may be by music videos and celebrity shills. The key to actually securing our charitable time lies in paring down the options, thinking strategically about our contribution, and being honest about our needs.
If you are a boss or colleague tasked with inspiring corporate philanthropy in this generation, your first mission will be to serve as a trusted filter for the sheer quantity of philanthropic asks coming at these young people every day. Use your own experience or their professional focus to help them narrow their focus.
If you are a nonprofit executive on a mission to recruit young blood, you absolutely have to ask yourself the question “What, exactly, do I want from these young people I’m trying to bring in?” Every nonprofit will tell you they want young volunteers, but many haven’t actually thought strategically about where they would like to plug them in or how the organization would retain them. Not actually needing our help is the fastest way to lose our interest.
Finally, if you yourself are a young worker trying to find your cause, start right now by losing your self-consciousness over asking for what you need from a philanthropic relationship. If you aren’t honest about needing flexible volunteer hours, or never wanting to do data entry, you set yourself up time and again for an unfulfilling experience with giving. You’ll simply keep playing the field and never settle down with a worthy cause that really tugs at YOUR heartstrings. Don’t be ashamed of volunteering in the way that’s meaningful to you, and you’ll be on your way to finding The One among The Masses.
Courtney Clark is the Founder and Executive Director of Austin Involved, connecting young professionals to meaningful volunteer and donor opportunities. Courtney beat melanoma at age 26, and the causes dearest to her heart are cancer awareness, humane treatment of animals, and children aging out of foster care.
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