I’ve been thinking lately about how grateful I am that the recession has not really hit me personally in my pocket. I am blessed to a have a decent-paying, flexible nonprofit job with benefits that I work part-time. Along with other projects and teaching, my lifestyle has pretty much remained constant, a much different reality than the millions of young people that are struggling right now. If I did not have advanced education, my outlook would probably be a lot different right now, but that’s another post for another day. For now I wanted to share some trends that I am seeing in the nonprofit community that are proving harmful to the vibrant cadre of young workers we have in our employ. Any way you slice it, the economy has crippled many groups in many ways, but it’s still up to us to be sure we are making the kind of decisions that are good for both our organizations and our employees.

Low, Lower, Lowest Salaries
I was sad to see the findings from the most recent AFL-CIO report, “Young Workers: A Lost Decade,” which surveyed a cross-section of workers under 35 and showed that:
• More than half of young workers earn less than $30,000.
• More than one in three young workers say they are currently living at home with their parents.
• 31 percent of young workers do not have health insurance coverage.
• One-third of young workers cannot pay the bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.
While the findings from the AFL-CIO report were not exclusively geared toward young nonprofit workers, it’s easy to imagine that a significant portion of people in the sample had jobs in the nonprofit sector as it was a cross-section. We also know the prevalence in our field of hiring entry-level workers at the ever-so-common $30,000 a year joke of a salary. What we can now also surmise is that our young nonprofit leaders that fall into this income bracket are also less likely to have health coverage and may be forced to live with their parents because they may not be self-sufficient.
This very real economic reality can be illustrated in my own experience a few months ago. I was out for dinner with a colleague of mine - a fellow Gen Y nonprofit leader - and when it came time to pay the bill, her credit card was declined. She literally did not have enough money to pay for her portion of the meal. Is that the quality of life we want to pass on to the next generation of nonprofit leaders?

The Death of Leadership Development
Before the economy tanked, leadership development was a luxury typically reserved for employees at nonprofits that had huge budgets. But even if your organization was low on cash, there were still conferences you could attend or programs you could apply for that could fill in the gap. Now, those opportunities appear to be dwindling. I have seen fewer conferences being advertised this year, and the ones that have held conferences have had lower attendance. One of the most public was the Council of Nonprofits, which canceled its much-anticipated 2009 Nonprofit Congress earlier this year. Then there is the story about Jewish organization, Professional Leaders Project shutting down. The nonprofit had been “dedicated to increasing the recruitment and retention of outstanding leaders who will lead our Jewish community into the future.”
Due to all the budget cutting going on, pretty soon we won’t even be able to go to the library and read nonprofit books to enrich our leadership skills for free.

More Unpaid Internships
Sure, nonprofits are still recruiting interns - recent grads, high school students, people in between jobs. The problem is that I’m seeing more and more of these short-term positions being listed as unpaid. It wouldn’t be so bad if the nonprofits were offering the kind of experience that would help young people learn to lead. What I see happening with many of my colleagues is that we are hiring interns to do the extra work that has been placed upon us because we are expending more energy fundraising. Or we are using interns as a stopgap for administrative support because we can no longer afford to have a full-time administrative assistant. I will use an example from my own organization. We had an unpaid intern for the summer, and most days I observed her doing things like making copies and printing things. We never really gave her the chance to learn anything new, let alone practice leadership. We never even thought about it. We were too busy doing the “important work.”

There are so many opportunities for the younger generation of nonprofit workers to contribute to the success of organizations imperiled by the recession, but we’re clearly missing them. This is why if you are a young nonprofit professional, you must be prepared to be your own best advocate. No one is going to do it for you, especially in these difficult economic times.

imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C. area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.