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Nonprofits Must Embrace Transparency, Flexibility to Attract Talent


GRAND RAPIDS — Filling a seat and collecting a paycheck aren’t enough for the new generation of nonprofit employees.

With Millennials representing the largest group of Michigan’s 430,000 nonprofit-sector employees, their employers need to pay attention to what will attract and retain this growing sector, said Bill Gesaman, strategic growth officer with the Michigan Nonprofit Association

Gesaman moderated a panel discussion during the 2018 MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards and NextGen Nonprofits educational event Jan. 24 at the Goei Center in Grand Rapids.

“You have people who want to feel like they’re more than just a butt in a seat,” said panelist Denavvia Mojet, strategic communications coordinator with Grand Rapids-based LINC Up

As an employee, Mojet wants her voice to be heard during meetings and she wants to walk into a role where she knows she’ll be adding value to the organization.

“I don’t want to step into an already cut-out role,” Mojet said. “I don’t feel like I’ll be happy if I don’t have a job where I’ll have an impact on the areas that mean the most to me.”

At the end of the day, Millennials want to work at a job where they make a difference, she said.

Kathy Crosby, president and CEO at Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids Inc., said during the panel that about half of her organization’s 750 employees are Millennials, with their average tenure being about 4.5 years. She said the needs of the new generation of workers became very apparent to her when Goodwill started working with AmeriCorps in 2007.

“There was this earth-changing moment for me when I was meeting with AmeriCorps members and they wanted to know what we did with social media,” Crosby said.

Crosby told them that she kept her personal and Goodwill social media separate. She said their reaction made her realize the high value that her younger employees place on transparency, which immediately became a high priority for her.

At one point during the discussion, Gesaman used instant-feedback technology to ask the audience members why they were drawn to careers in the nonprofit sector. Audience members answered that flexibility, purpose, impact, mission, values and community were important issues, among others. 

“Flexibility was a huge one for me in determining where I was going to work,” Mojet said. “I had several other job offers. LINC Up wasn’t the highest salary offer, but when I thought of doing work at a place that mattered to me, that was important.”

Mojet said she wanted to be in a place where she knew her work would make an impact — something Millennials are increasingly seeking out in the jobs they take.

Fellow panelist Jamon Alexander, who oversees the adult training program for the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology in Grand Rapids, said the nonprofit sector appeals to him because it allows for a degree of authenticity not often found in the for-profit sector. He said core values, the needs of the community and personal motivations align in a “beautiful” way and allow him to add value to the lives of those he works with.

“I can walk with the most under-resourced and marginalized individuals in our community,” Alexander said. “I personally consider it a privilege to walk with folks in those positions.”

Crosby said the values piece is critical to attracting and retaining this younger workforce.

“We don’t attract workers by paying the highest salaries,” she said. “It’s more about connecting with people about meaningful ways to work.

“We gravitate to this work because we really value every life that we cross paths with. We want to share some piece of ourselves. We need to get creative about how to meet the needs of the Greatest Generation to the Millennials.”

Along with that comes the recognition that the needs of each employee are different. At least three times a year, Crosby meets with employees. The organization also uses surveys to gather feedback to see what’s working and what’s not. Additionally, an internal employee committee works on issues of race.

Crosby said the committee’s work has included changing policy to give each employee a set number of days to take off for holidays, rather than the company dictating which holidays people didn’t need to work.

“We are not a stagnant organization,” Crosby said. “We have asked people to tell us when they want to start their day and tried to accommodate everybody’s workstyle. All of our policies are up for scrutiny on a regular and rotating basis.”

While this constant scrutiny and the drive for change may set off alarm bells for some nonprofit leaders, Crosby said it’s vital to the continued success of organizations and their ability to stay true to their missions.

“A lot of us in this room are not … Millennials,” she said. “This whole thing makes us feel uncomfortable, but we need to embrace that.”

Before accepting her job with LINC Up, Mojet said she went to job fairs and met with leadership and wanted to know where the weaknesses were.

“A lot of times what I learned from working with other generations is that we get comfortable with saying, ‘Well, this is the way it is,’” Mojet said. “LINC Up has afforded me the ability to do things differently. They’re willing to hear my ideas on how to improve. That’s empowered me to be more loyal to my employer.”