Setting the Stage for Intergenerational Leadership: Attracting and Retaining Young Workers in Non-Profit

This article is the second in a series about intergenerational leadership. The series is published as a collaboration between The Philanthropist and Connect the Sector (CTS).

When it comes to being a choice employer for young people, the non-profit sector is not always top of mind.

Even after months of studying and partnering with charities, two-thirds (63%) of 20,000 high school students across Canada surveyed by the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative Canada (2015) did not see themselves working in the charitable sector. While the survey results indicate that youth see the value in the sector’s work, this does not mean they see charities and non-profits as a place to build a career.

It is worrisome that young people do not see the value proposition of working in the sector, particularly with research showing they are drawn to working for employers embodying many of the qualities prevalent in it. A review of Canada’s top 100 employers suggests that the next generation of workers is looking for employers who commit to being socially responsible and giving back to the community (Jermym, 2017).

Yet, in a survey of more than 800 Ontario non-profit leaders, 68% had experienced recruitment challenges, such as non-competitive salaries or job applicants lacking relevant work experiences (McIsaac, Park and Toupin, 2013). Finding talented staff, particularly young workers, is one of the biggest challenges non-profits face (Nonprofit HR, 2016).

Because finding talent is difficult, it is more important than ever for organizations to retain and advance their existing workers. If social good is ingrained in the non-profit sector’s DNA, then why does the sector struggle to attract top, young talent?

“Historically, we’ve both undervalued and underpaid the sector,” says Terry Cooke, president and CEO of Hamilton Community Foundation (HCF).

The precarious nature of non-profit work makes it difficult to retain workers. In 2003, a survey of 13,000 non-profits and charities showed that temporary employment accounted for 35% of jobs in the non-profit sector, almost three times higher than the percentage among Canadian employers in general (Hall, 2005).

While Cooke thinks that many community foundations “benchmark against the best and the brightest” to attract top talent with competitive salary, he acknowledges that funding constraints make this difficult to do across the sector. “Relative to other opportunities I had,” he says, reflecting on his first non-profit role as a young worker at the Ontario Marches of Dimes in the 1980s, “[the job] was a significant financial discount to do work that I thought had a great challenge and meaning. . . That financial hardship really becomes a disincentive for folks staying in the parts of the sector that are not able to pay a wage that is commensurate with what people need to have a decent lifestyle.”

Precariously-employed workers not only experience work instability, but also low compensation, lack of health and retirement benefits and little clarity around career paths (Van Ymeren and Lalande, 2015). For young workers, all these factors combined means that it is challenging to build a career in the sector.

How can non-profits attract early-career workers and retain them? It is equally important to ask: how can different generations of established and young workers support one another and work together to build a thriving non-profit sector?

Part of the answer to attraction lies in the need to reassess the sector’s public image and move beyond common narratives of service provision to paint a fuller picture of non-profit work. This means conveying the broad scope of non-profit careers and emphasizing the sector’s competitive edge. Efforts to retain young workers may not be restricted to greater financial incentives but also improvements in the quality of non-profit work and by encouraging intergenerational learning and collaboration. Here are a few strategic opportunities for reform:

Pathways to non-profit careers

While many young people volunteer for non-profits in high school, they may have limited understanding of the range of paid roles available in the sector. There is no doubt that volunteering is a viable part of the non-profit labour force; 54% of non-profits are run entirely by volunteers (Barr, et al., 2006). However, frontline volunteer roles often only expose young people to one aspect of the labour force that fuels the sector.

How can young people see themselves as workers, not just volunteers, in the sector? Where does a non-profit career path even begin?

“People are often drawn to the work because their lives are related to the work, in some ways,” says Jennifer Hompoth, co-founder of youth-led NGen Youth Centre. She says her volunteer work at Regent Park as a 15-year-old inspired her to pursue work in the non-profit sector.

Young workers cite passion for the cause and a desire to create change as strong reasons for seeking non-profit work (Cordeaux, 2017). While volunteering may not provide a full picture of the sector, Hompoth’s story suggests that volunteer experiences – if meaningful – can be a starting point to build interest in working for non-profits.

In their interactions with young volunteers, non-profit organizations might use this as an opportunity to communicate what a non-profit career might look like, by moving beyond focusing on just promoting the services and programs provided. This includes partnering with schools to highlight different career options, such as through roundtable or panel discussions between non-profit professionals, early career non-profit workers, and students.

In conversations with young people, it is worth highlighting that the non-profit sector is more than social services: it also includes industries such as healthcare, education, faith-based groups, and more. The variety of work and industries could not only appeal to young people, but also shed light on the range of career options available.

While Hompoth feels encouraged knowing that youth volunteers she interacts with are motivated to work in the sector, she thinks it is necessary to be forthright in addressing common concerns such as low compensation and job security. “We have to have realistic conversations with [young] people to say, ‘Well, what are your expectations? What does your debt load look like? Are you caring for family? Do you have health concerns?’”

This honest conversation is important to engage youth, who can then help identify structures and incentives within the non-profit sector that match their aspirations. In doing so, non-profits could consider how they can “transfer a sense of ownership” by putting young people front and centre in sector-wide discussions of intergenerational collaboration and leadership (Cave, 2013).

Conveying value proposition

How well do non-profits leverage their brands to create a value proposition and communicate the benefits of working in the sector? Having a strong employer brand matters, because it promotes identification with a non-profit organization’s values and vision. One definition of employer brand is “the package of functional, economic and psychological benefits” provided by employment within an organization (Ambler and Borrow, 1996, p. 8). It can differentiate a non-profit from its competitors, showing how it is an employer of choice. Having a strong brand also offers insights into the culture of an organization.

The non-profit sector may look at the growth in popularity of social entrepreneurship as an opportunity to broaden what non-profit work is all about: not only frontline social service work or fundraising, but also through innovative program models that blend profit and social good.

While social entrepreneurship is not a new practice, its buzz in the business world overshadows the fact that charities and non-profits are the original social entrepreneurs, argues Marina Glogovac, CEO of CanadaHelps (Glogovac, 2016). Examples include: At The Table, a catering service at YWCA Hamilton that raises funds for the Y’s transitional living program, or the youth-led Harvest food truck by Living Rock Ministries, which offers work experience for youth and re-directs proceeds to fund youth programs. Reinforcing the fact that social entrepreneurship is a practice within the non-profit sector can help increase awareness of careers in the sector, such as entrepreneurship, that many youths may not associate with non-profit work.

Another way for non-profits to build a value proposition is to tell the stories of the people that make their work possible. Storytelling tactics, such as online staff profiles or “a day in the life” features showcasing different jobs types within an organization help paint a better picture of the full range of career opportunities within the sector. For example, CharityVillage’s A Day in the Life series not only details the responsibilities of a role, but also outlines the challenges, rewarding moments, and the education needed to excel in the job. These types of communications tactics help debunk myths that non-profit work is all warm fuzzies without skill and professionalism.

Enhancing the competitive advantages of working in the sector also involves investing in training and development. This shouldn’t be an afterthought, especially for young workers new to the sector. It is critical to start from the very beginning with a proper onboarding process, as it improves employee retention and sets the tone for future experiences within the organization (Vaughan, 2017). For new young workers, orientation and training can help familiarize them in their role and ensure that they are well-equipped to succeed (Cordeaux, 2017).

Development strategies can include participation at conferences, formal training (e.g. relevant courses) or stretch projects. Dubbed as “DIY leadership development,” stretch projects challenge young workers to develop expertise outside their comfort zones (Nayak, 2015). When linked with organizational goals, they offer a win-win situation for both young workers and the employer. Young workers build their leadership capacity while organizations benefit from increased competency among staff (Cordeaux, 2017).

Cooke’s story of his first job at Ontario Marches of Dimes as a 23-year-old university graduate from social work suggests that young workers are empowered when they feel a sense of ownership in the work they do. “I was given immense responsibilities that put together a whole group of issues that I love . . . I had the chance to work with neighbourhoods, architects, governments, planners and funders in developing these remarkable housing projects.”

Although young workers may demonstrate passion and drive to succeed, their commitment is countered by a belief that they will be seduced by more lucrative opportunities in other sectors, argues Cordeaux (2017) who drew insight from interviews with young workers in the core non-profit sector. This perception may downplay other human resources challenges that pose barriers for young workers to staying employed in the sector, such as unclear performance management and expectations, undefined career paths, lack of benefits, and poor funding practices that do not support decent employment (Cordeaux, 2017).

If so, what role do funders play in creating structures for a sustainable non-profit sector?

Although Cooke leads a community foundation, he reflects on his early career experience at a grassroots organization when thinking about funders’ role in the sector. “The reality is the philanthropic sector can never fill the void that is created when governments withdraw from the basic commitments to health, social services, the environment, that historically we know only governments can provide,” he says. “In the absence of government being a full partner, we are not going to make full progress.”

Government withdrawal of services, combined with an aging population translate to a greater strain and reliance on non-profits to deliver services (HR Council for the Voluntary & Non-profit Sector, 2008). As the demands of the sector increase, young workers play a critical role in shaping the non-profit labour force.

To meet tomorrow’s challenges, the non-profit sector needs to invest in talent development through proper training and professional development today.

Building a worker-centric workplace

In today’s workplace, we see up to five generations working side by side (Meister and Willyerd, 2009). Are young workers any different from other generations of workers? Perhaps not. Studies show that young workers and their older counterparts have the same career goals and their workplace expectations are more similar than you think, irrespective of age (Pfau, 2016). This presents an even more compelling reason for non-profits to make their workers’ needs and well-being a priority.

Central to that is the mental health of workers. Hompoth recalls an exit interview with a talented young worker who called her role “the dream job” but felt that it was unsustainable for her in the long run. “She said ‘I realized though that to be here, a 100% isn’t enough – I need to be putting in 110% — and I simply don’t have that right now.’”

Financial stability aside, there need to be structures in place help workers deal with any stress and trauma they may go through, adds Hompoth, who oversees young frontline workers who work with marginalized communities.

Mentorship is one way to support workers and promote intergenerational learning. In fact, mentorship by a non-profit leader is cited as an effective leadership development activity for workers that may enhance job satisfaction and employee retention (McIsaac, Park and Toupin, 2013). Managers may perform career stewardship by having conversations with young workers about their work performance and developing genuine interest in their professional growth.

For mentorship initiatives to work, they should benefit both mentors and mentees. Good mentorship program design includes goal setting, clear expectations, relationship framing, risk management and evaluation (Isakson, 2011). There is a business case for mentoring young talent as doing so enhances an organization’s ability to meet its mission and community needs (Kapila, 2014). Mentorship can contribute to the long-term health of an organization by strengthening organizational culture through shared knowledge and expertise.

When it comes to building a worker-centric workplace, is there a case for flexible working arrangements? While different workers across generations may appreciate flexibility, Deloitte’s most recent research on millennials suggests that flexible work practices link to increased performance among young workers and increased personal benefit and loyalty to their employer (Deloitte, 2017). Flexibility recognizes that work and life priorities are interrelated. Technological advances can offer workers greater control of how and when they work without forgoing personal commitments, creating a more fluid work and life experience.

At the same time, flexibility without clarity between young workers and their employers can be detrimental for both parties. Without boundaries or clear communication, “flexibility” results in situations where young workers feel compelled to work round the clock (Cordeaux, 2017). Flexibility may contribute to a “temporary culture,” one that perpetuates the rise of contract, unstable employment, lower wages, shift work and reduced benefits and pensions (Van Ymeren and Lalande, 2015). As organizations adopt flexible work practices, they should be mindful of how flexibility affects young workers’ well-being and maintain open communication about organizational expectations and workers’ needs.

Moving towards a resilient and thriving non-profit sector

Those who work in the sector know full well: there is no one universal experience of non-profit work. A single narrative about non-profit work does not tell the full story or capture the full scope of what each and every organization does.

As workers – and ambassadors – of the non-profit sector, we must ask: are we showcasing the full scope of career opportunities that exist in the sector? While we work on conveying the value proposition of the non-profit sector as an employer of choice, we should not discount underlying human resources challenges as we continue to work towards building workplaces that value workers.

We as a sector have a responsibility to care for and empower our workers, says Hompoth. “Enable people to have power – decision-making, validation, recognition – and people will create the change that they need to. Because they will innovate . . . they will organize in ways that lead to change at a grassroots youth level.

“Allow your work to be defined by the larger, pressing social issues and being genuinely responsive to how you can organize to rise to those challenges,” she says. “Those solutions will come if you give people the opportunity.”

By thinking long term and reflecting on current recruitment and retention practices, non-profits can adopt a continued practice of inclusive and intergenerational collaboration. It is time for sector leaders in existing generations, for the new generation, and for generations to come to work together and build a thriving non-profit sector.

For more on this topic, listen to the author’s podcast discussion with Terry Cooke and Jennifer Hompoth.


The author would like to thank Emily Cordeaux, Coordinator of Research & Evaluation at Imagine Canada, for her editorial support and expertise. Her constructive comments helped inform and give shape to this article.



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Illustration by Paul Dotey


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