Don’t panic (Part 1)—opportunities are out there for the nonprofit sector

From left to right, panelists Veronica Marceny, Melanie Burgess, Christine Berg, Ben Baldwin and Katie McCune at the CU Career Services Public Service Sector panel.

By Katie McCune, JVA Consulting

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of speaking at University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) Career Services’ Public Service Career Panel. The purpose of the panel was to provide students and alumni insights into the public service sector including governmental and nonprofit work. I was humbled by the impressive lineup of panelists that included Ben Baldwin of the National Park Service (NPS) at Rocky Mountain National Park, Christine Berg with the Office of Congressman Jared Polis and Candidate for Lafayette City Council, Melanie Burgess of Burgess Consulting, LLC, and Veronica Marceny with the Colorado Judicial Branch. Listening to these individuals talk was inspiring and was a great reminder of lessons for young professionals interested in the field, as well as for the sector as a whole. For more about lessons for young professionals, click here to read this week’s Ask Amber.

Much has been made recently of the retirement of the baby boomer generation, and if the catchy name—silver tsunami—is a fair reflection of how we view this phenomenon, it’s safe to say that as a nation, we’re downright terrified. Unfortunately, nonprofits and other public service organizations are not free from the effects. While this might be a scary for some, I think the career panel was a great reminder to us all—don’t panic, there’s a lot of opportunity—opportunity to develop the next generation of socially-minded leaders.

Prior to the panel, I interviewed Career Services’ Lisa Lovett. Lisa is the Internship Program Coordinator and was a vital part of supporting my professional growth as a young professional in the field through CU’s Public Interest Internship Experience. I asked her about the reasons for holding a career panel with a social service spin. She shared that many students are passionate about a particular cause that may be represented by the social service sector (e.g., women’s studies) but aren’t necessarily aware of the opportunities available to them. Until recently, there haven’t been many steps taken to inform young professionals of the options, and so there has been a lag in bringing new people into the sector to fill retiring baby boomers’ jobs.

Three years ago, Career Services started working with the national initiative of Partnership for Public Service. This nonpartisan group works with college campuses like CU to spread the word about government jobs and is also leading an initiative to streamline the process for applying to government jobs. The state of Colorado seems to have followed suit with CO-Jobs, touted as the state of Colorado’s new online application process. Lisa, full of insights, pointed out that even though these efforts are specifically geared towards government jobs, the effects will likely trickle down and help nonprofits as well because the work of nonprofits and governmental organizations is consistently intertwined, and workers tend to move fluidly between the two.

These efforts are encouraging and are vital to making the connection between the need for new leadership and the large population of young individuals looking to make an impact. As Robert Egger, Founder and President of DC Central Kitchen, pointed out in his keynote speech at the Colorado Nonprofit Association Conference earlier this month, there is no shortage of passionate, socially-minded young individuals. Even if you look at the breakdown of demographics of the Occupy demonstrations with nearly 65% of demonstrators under the age of 35 according to 4closureFraud.org, it is easy to see that so many young individuals yearning to contribute to social change. The problem instead is linking them up to opportunities to implement their vision of a better world.

So what does all of this mean for you, as a leader, worker or interested party of a nonprofit? Well I do believe, this is your, my, our call to action. As active members of the nonprofit community, a community that prides itself on being an agent of change, we need to take responsibility for developing the future nonprofit workforce. If you read this weeks’ Ask Amber, you’ll see that a lot of my fellow panelists talked about the need for professionals who want to get into the field to be tenacious, flexible and proactive. As a sector, we should heed this advice as well. We need to be tenacious about developing new leadership. Do not let succession planning fall by the wayside and take some risks in hiring new professionals who are passionate and forward thinking, even if they lack the experience to fill up a four-page resume. We need to be flexible in adapting to generational differences in the workforce like different views of the role of technology and desire for work-life balance, and we need to utilize the strengths of the younger generation (still have no idea what the heck “tweeting” is? Guess who does, and who probably knows how to leverage this to earn your organization more money?). We need to be proactive in providing opportunities to aspiring nonprofit workers, and rather than waiting for them to find us, we need to seek them out. Be intentional about providing internships every semester and advertise volunteer, internship and employment positions through local organizations that have access to the future workforce, like CU’s Career Services.

So don’t panic—there is plenty of opportunity for the field to prosper long after the baby boomer generation has retired, provided we truly embrace what is to come. Just as we ask young professionals to take advantage of the opportunities at their fingertips, we need to do the same, and if both groups can do their part, I am confident that as a sector, we’ll do just fine.

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