Nonprofit Trends: Seeking Careers with Meaning

If you saw the 2013 predictions I shared earlier this year, you know that I believe the nonprofit sector is in the midst of a revaluing process. Some really strong evidence of this fact is how people -- of widely varying ages -- are turning to the sector for employment.

In my last post, I shared that nonprofits employ 10 percent of all workers in America. And that number is growing pretty dramatically. One big reason why is that Millennials and Boomers alike -- and others in between -- are seeking what I like to call "careers with meaning."

Boomers like me came of age when technology was just beginning to suggest that it would be a real force, when people in the work world largely knew about nonprofits through their company's workplace campaigns or from old, established brand-name charities. In many ways, it was still much like the world our parents worked in. But that was about to change, dramatically and in large part because of technology. Both the kinds of companies and the work available shifted. The web made it possible to connect far beyond our own communities, making global business and global connections much easier and heading us to where we are today.

Today, many of my Boomer friends are retired or are thinking about it. But for them, retiring doesn't mean they want to stop working. The entrepreneurial spirit my generation is known for (think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) isn't gone. My fellow Boomers have a lot left to do, and many are opting to take their skills, experience and passion to the nonprofit sector. They are choosing "retirement careers" that involve running nonprofits, serving as strategic counsel or working as "unpaid staff" driving key programs. They are choosing roles with meaning that allow them to make a difference at the end of their careers while also networking them into the communities they have chosen to adopt later in life. The combination is a powerful one, benefiting the nonprofit, the employee and the community.

Our children aren't all that different, except that they're beginning their careers with a focus on meaning. Kids are growing up doing service hours for school, they're aware of how important nonprofits -- and specific nonprofit brands -- are to the world. And they want to be a part of positive change. Some opt to go the traditional route, but the profusion of social entrepreneurship, nonprofit management and philanthropy programs shows us that kids are opting very early to focus on "doing good" in whatever form that takes. They can focus on "doing well" at the same time, for sure. This generation believes that two can and should go together.

Looking just at nonprofit management and philanthropy, the field is crowded with academic programs designed to teach our youth how to lead tomorrow, from the board rooms of nonprofit organizations. The Indiana University School of Philanthropy has long been lauded as a leader in this effort, and its formal shift recently from being a "center" to being a "school" is recognition both of the institution's contribution and the market need for such programs. Indeed, there are now so many graduate nonprofit management degree programs out there, that U.S. News and World Report even ranks them.

For those seeking to enhance their careers mid-stream, the Gen-Xers out there, there is a profusion of certificate programs designed for professionals to take on while they are working. Although you do find many students in these programs already work for nonprofits in some capacity, others are seeking to make a change. They are either looking for a new job because the economy wasn't kind to them or consciously choosing to orient themselves differently.

There's also a growing trend of people seeking careers with meaning inside the corporate world -- and making it happen. I am proud to lead a company that offers such opportunities, that cares about doing well and doing good at the same time. I think it's vital -- that having a work world where there is choice between nonprofit and corporate, both offering ways to connect with and care for the community at large is a position of strength.