Nonprofits should incubate external initiatives by Millennials

Millennials (usually of the university student variety) are often involved in initiatives related to sustainability, homelessness, international development, social justice, etc. as a part of student clubs, classes, or other. Some of these initiatives fit perfectly with your organization’s mission. Why not incubate these initiatives and budding ideas, engaging a new form of volunteer in the process?

If you are a community leader in, say, women’s equality, promote your organization as a social change incubator. Reach out to university groups, or students through relevant academic disciplines (Women Studies, Anthropology, etc.). Offer your organization as a resource – contacts, expertise, media advice, resources, business processes, meeting space, perhaps even a little little bit of $. Often these initiatives are not your run of the mill awareness- or fundraising activity so they may provide opportunities for your organization to get into the press. You’ll also be furthering your mission through the power of people, without loads of money. You might even learn a little something from Millennials in the process.

Provide young people volunteer opportunities beyond events and education

Young people are interested in more than just special event volunteering and education/mentorship/tutoring experiences.

I used to work at SFU, where I was responsible for getting SFU Volunteer Services up and running. Once and a while I’d review the volunteer experiences we had coming in from community organizations, and about 90% of the opportunities could be qualified as one of the following:

  • Day-of event volunteering
  • Tutoring youth
  • Mentoring youth
  • Running camps or other educational experiences for youth

It’s been a few years since I was at SFU, and I suspect the above 90% list could be expanded to include social media volunteer opportunities as well.

Not all Millennials want to be teachers. And the ones that already are teachers – they probably don’t want to spend their time doing more of the same of their day job. And event volunteering is a great first step for new volunteers, but what about the ones who have interested in deeper, more meaningful opportunities? And re: social media – just because someone uses a tool (like Twitter), doesn’t mean they are capable of developing strategy and effectively representing an organization on that same tool.

So what are some other options? Here are 5 random ideas:

  • Drafting press releases
  • Curating content for your organization’s blog/newsletter
  • Research (related to your cause/your business processes/your supporters etc.)
  • Providing advice on how to connect better with their university/workplace
  • Serving on a task force meant to strategize re: branding, supporter engagement, use of technology

Think about each of the areas in your organization – internal processes, programs, marketing, fundraising, etc. and think to yourself, “How could a young person’s voice/expertise/ideas/effort make this area even better?” And recruit for that.

Check you mindset on Millennials who volunteer

Young people these days get a bad wrap. Phrases like entitledshort attention spanself-absorbed, etc quickly come to mind. During recent research we completed for Volunteer Canada, some interviewees even suggested that “young people aren’t volunteering anymore”.

Self-fulfilling prophecy behaviour dictates that if we expect a certain type of behaviour, we will find it. We give more weight to experiences that confirm our expectations, and dismiss those that don’t fit with what we come to believe.

So instead of thinking:

  • Young people don’t volunteer anymore.
  • Millennials are entitled.
  • Youth only volunteer to get experience on their resume.
  • Millennials are all about social media.
  • Young people don’t follow through with volunteer commitments because we don’t pay them.

(Not all of these are bad, and the first isn’t even true, but they can lead to poor or limited volunteer engagement strategies.)

Instead, look for behaviour that confirms:

  • Young people love feeling connected to the big picture/the cause.
  • Millennials are storytellers and evangelists for organizations that provide great experiences.
  • Youth are looking for growth and development opportunities.
  • Young people appreciate career opportunities that volunteering can provide.

The next time you hear someone at your organization bemoan Millennials, offer an anecdote that challenges their assumptions. If you don’t have any stories of your own yet to offer, create them by testing the “new” assumptions provided above. Give yourself and your young volunteers more than one opportunity to prove you wrong.

How technology can make or break your volunteer engagement

I recently spoke at Vancouver Net Tuesday on the topic of technology and volunteer engagement. My talk was titled “6 questions to ask before using technology for volunteer engagement“. While the questions can trigger deeper thinking before implementing technology, much of boils down to this:

Does your use of technology make you stick out or stand out?

When technology is used for volunteer engagement, the results are not always fantastic. Here are 6 ways technology can make or break your volunteer engagement.

Technology that sticks out

Collecting information

Asking volunteers to fill out actual forms. Paper, Word documents, PDFs. Print and mail, print and scan, save and send back. These scream INEFFICIENT! Even if you don’t require printing, the way most people create forms in Word, they end up looking pretty funny when filled in and require fiddling. They also indicate that there’s probably going to be a staff member at the other end doing a lot of menial cutting and pasting or data entry. The only time paper forms are OK is when volunteers face economic barriers and don’t have access to computer or internet. But most public library facilities serve this purpose – usually internet is free, but printing is not and scanning doesn’t exist.

Solution: Online surveys. Whether as part of a more robust database system or free tools like Google Forms (a part of Google Docs), Survey Monkey, Wufoo, or FluidSurveys, collect your data so that the volunteer and the administrator don’t have to hassle with administrivia. Instead, they can work with data that has been entered directly by the individual. AND often you can integrate your forms with other software you use.

Volunteer administration systems

Some organizations buy into intense software to coordinate and schedule volunteers. They may simplify things on the back end for the coordinator, but are often headaches for the volunteer–especially in the application stage. If a person is considering volunteering or just wants to learn more about opportunities with an organization, sending them through a 10 page volunteer administration system and asking them every question the organization could ever think of needing the answer to (from t-shirt size to 5 references to the names of any planned future children) for them only to find out on page 9 that there are only two distinct volunteer roles, neither of which is interesting to the volunteer or neither of which has openings — not OK. This is not an effective way to welcome a supporter into the organization.

Solution: Mix the admin with the personal. Have the initial application form (ahem, online survey) be short. Name, contact information, what triggered their interest in the organization, if any particular role is of interest to them. Done. Then, follow up by email or phone. Within the week. 24 hours even better – catch them while their interest is hot.

Social media

You know those Twitter accounts that only promote fundraising events? Or how about those Facebook pages that haven’t had new content for a year? If a volunteer starts following an organization via social media, bad social media skills can be a turnoff.

Solution: Don’t use social media if your organization is not going to invest in it. Turning to the youngest person in your office and asking them to do it off the corner of their desk is not OK. And if you do invest in it, be sure to involve someone that has a talent for marketing and engagement strategy. Just because a young person has personally used social media doesn’t mean they have the experience to implement a campaign or plan around it.

Technology that stands out

Social media

Just as social media can make an organization stick out, it can also make them stand out. Not for promoting, but for engagement. Social media is used best as a communication tool with people that are already involved with your organization. When getting contact information from volunteers, also find out if they’re on Twitter. Mention them in your Tweets or on your Facebook page by thanking a group of volunteers, or spreading interesting information they’ve shared.

Collaborative on-line documents

As a jury member for this year’s Vancouver Timeraiser, I was surprised how many applicant organizations didn’t have any positions that could be done from home. Really? I’ve worked with teams of people pulling together research on women and politics or articles on millennial engagement with ZERO in-person contact. The ones I use most frequently are Google Docs (and spreadsheets, and forms) and Wikis. You can change the settings so that anyone can edit and see the document, or only those you invite.

Myth: You need a Gmail account to use Google Docs.
Fact: Nope, you just need a Google account. You can create one using any email address.

None at all

I don’t mean you don’t actually use technology – just that volunteers don’t even notice it because everything is so smooth. Kind of like government – we don’t notice it when it’s working well.

Do an audit of your volunteer engagement processes – recruitment, screening, training, scheduling, working, rewarding, coordinating, communicating – to determine how technology is helping or hindering engagement at each step. Better yet, create a high impact volunteer role for a volunteer do an audit.

How do you use technology to effectively engage volunteers? Have you ever been frustrated by an organization’s use of technology (or lack thereof)?

Upcoming events: Volunteers and technology; what the next gen wants from nonprofits

I’ll be speaking in three different places next month – hope to see you at one or more!


Complete details here >

Tuesday, July 5 | 5:30pm | 306 Abbott St (upstairs) | FREE
Join me and Elijah van der Giessen (of Net Tuesday and David Suzuki Foundation) as we share strategies about the use of technology for effective volunteer engagement.


Complete details here >

This two-part series will introduce you to data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits, help you identify how your organization is currently performing, and encourage next steps you can take to achieve your goals. Sample topics include volunteer opportunities, new donors, staff retention, and social media.

No more guessing: Data and research on what the next generation wants from nonprofits

Wed, July 13 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

Future engagement: Assessing your current practices and taking the next step to effective next generation engagement

Wed, July 27 | 8:45am – 10:30am | 1183 Melville St.
$40, including light breakfast

Book Review: How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar

Disclaimer: I was asked to provide a review of this book and was sent a free advanced copy and the opportunity to be an affiliate, meaning that a portion of every e-book sale made via links on my blog will go into my bank account.

Nonprofit Rockstar

How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar
Rosetta Thurman and Trista Harris
$19.99 / $24.99 (after November 15)

Before I even delved into this book, I had to try very hard to literally not judge a book by its cover. The word “rockstar” and the image of a single person in the spotlight, on a pillar, surrounded by fans, completely turned me off.

Perhaps the target audience is younger than I, more extroverted than I, less advanced in career than I.

Nevertheless I can see the cover and title appealing to those in the first few years in their nonprofit career, keen, and eager to be the face of youth that are changing the world.

But, I’m not judging a book by its cover. I’m judging its contents. So I read the book through the eyes of a soon to be graduating university student, or a young professional fairly new to the sector (though the book’s introduction indicates the intended audience is the latter).

What the book does well:

First of all, the general format of the book appeals to me. I love lists, and I love practical, implementable action items, of which this book has 50 (plus sub-tips).

There are some great tips, including ones related to:

  • Speaking openly about goals
  • Getting management experience by leading committees
  • Stretch assignments
  • Ditching martyrdom

Rosetta and Trista also do a great job of using examples, both personal and of real young professionals, to illustrate their tips. I found this very useful in being able to visualize the practicalities or potential outcomes of their suggestions.

I really enjoyed Rosetta and Trista’s emphasis on the nonlinear career path, though I don’t believe this is unique to nonprofits as they suggest. This advice cannot be repeated enough to those about to enter the workforce or recently within it. Your past job titles or degree programs don’t define you. You do. Repeat: You do.

Another highlight of the book is the attention paid to diversity throughout. If you are a reader of Rosetta’s blog this won’t surprise you, but for those who are not, you will be treated to examples of all sorts: organizations that differ in size and mission, and individuals that different in experience and background. In that sense, I think every reader would be able to personally connect with at least one person sharing his or her story within.

Finally, Trista and Rosetta use an approachable and upbeat tone of voice throughout, so the book is not a heavy read.

What the book could have improved upon:

The book starts off very extrovert-centric. The introduction, which relates being at the back of the room with bad and being on stage speaking with good, casts aside and further marginalizes the oft-misunderstood introverts who very possibly get great work done without making a big fuss about it. (Disclaimer: I am one of those oft-misunderstood introverts. And Note: Sometimes making a fuss about your work is important. And Note: The book doesn’t stay extrovert-centric).

The book is also quite America-centric. Though there is one example given of young Canadian nonprofit staffperson, the specific examples of tools and resources are generally located in the US or directed to a US audience.

One of my largest frustrations while reading was that some of the sections were too short  (e.g. Tip 37: Create Your Own Professional Development Plan is only 3/4 of a page and I would have loved to read more) whereas others are way too long (e.g. Tip 44: Introduce Yourself to a Search Firm is 9 pages long and I feel less relevant to the intended audience).

Because of this, I felt while reading that the book goes all over the place. Because some of the tips were so short, others long, some providing a series of subtips, others with lengthy examples, I felt my brain was getting tugged around. On one hand this makes the book fine to read a tip at a time, out of order, over a long period of time. On the other hand, it made reading the book in one sitting a bit distracting.

The final call:

I think this book could have broader appeal than the intended audience described in the introduction. I think this book could also be suited to students planning on entering the nonprofit sector after graduating, or for any young profession in general, as many of the tips are relevant in all fields.

If you’re tight on cash but interested in this, I would suggest visiting a career advisor, talking to a few people who have jobs that resemble those you aspire to be in in a few years, volunteering, and following some nonprofit career-ish blogs, like Rosetta’s. I’m not a reader of Trista’s blog, but from reading Rosetta’s feed, I recognize many of the tips from previous posts.

Overall, I think it could have used a bit more editing, but offers a wide variety of tips to a young professional which can be used as a diverse grab bag of career advancement opportunities.

Find out more:

You can buy the book (in electronic or paperback version) here.

Find Rosetta on Twitter at @rosettathurman and on her blog at

Find Trista on Twitter at @tristaharris and on her blog at New Voices Of Philanthropy