Pick up any newspaper on your way to work in the morning, and chances are, you’ll see another financial giant brought low in the current unstable economy. Everyone in nonprofits and philanthropy is wondering what the financial sector meltdown means for us. Not only are the for-profit folks worried about their profits and their jobs, us nonprofit workers are worried about our donations and our jobs, too. Of course, no one can know for sure what the outcome of all this will be. The landscape changes day by day and we could be in a very different place three months from now. But one thing is clear. Things in the game done changed.

What the economic crisis is showing the nonprofit sector is that we can no longer rely on corporate social responsibility, ongoing government funding, or stable donations from even our most loyal donors. In two recent discussion groups of fundraisers in Washington, D.C. about 20 of us shared very timely information about declining revenues, hard to sell event tickets, and foundation rejection letters. Although the nonprofit community has gone through challenging times before—think post 9/11, the dot-com bust, various recessions, etc. most of us are saying that we’ve never seen this before. It’s as if all of our supports are crumbling before our eyes all at once. It’s a fundraiser’s nightmare, I can tell you from my own current experience.

So what kind of leadership is needed for these challenging times? Everyone’s trying to find the fix that fits. And it’s clear that the old top-down hierarchy isn’t the best model for what needs to happen in organizations today. When we just don’t have time to come up with another 5-year strategic plan to survive in this economy, how do we generate new ideas to address issues head on? Yet, in all this uncertainty, the nonprofit sector does have a silver bullet: the energy and talents of the next generation of leaders in our organizations. Allison Jones recently wrote a great post about how nonprofits and Generation Y can benefit from a bad economy, and I do think it is this kind of optimism that will get us through the tough times nonprofits will undoubtedly face in our fundraising, program planning, and staffing. Samuel Richard, another awesome Generation Y blogger, writes a fantastic open letter to nonprofit leaders, urging us to flip the script and use this time to showcase the incredible impact we have in our communities.

Because right now is an opportunity for young nonprofit professionals to bring fresh, innovative ideas for how we do the work of social change. As a sector faced with a myriad of uncertainty, our old solutions will absolutely not work. But don’t take my word for it; Albert Einstein tells it like it is (and always will be):

“We cannot solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

In my mind, there’s a very clear match here: a nonprofit sector in need of solutions in an uncertain economy and a cadre of young professionals eager to contribute in a meaningful way. Nonprofit CEOs are thinking: How do we fundraise differently? How do we engage volunteers more effectively? How can we cut organizational costs? How do we maintain the quality of our programming? These questions fill the whiteboards of so many nonprofit conference rooms even as I write this. And Generation Y is asking, how can I use my talent to help, to make a real difference in this organization, in this community? Current leaders have the perfect resource sitting right next to them and this is the perfect time to tap into the minds of young employees. This is indeed the perfect time to mine the knowledge from the next generation that can be much more useful and effective than ideas generated in a closed board meeting involving only senior management. But let’s get a little more specific here. Generation Y brings the very skills we need in these uncertain times:

  • Advanced education: More Generation Y nonprofit workers have completed Master’s degrees and MBAs, learning the latest information available about the management needs of nonprofits. We really should be tapping into that more. Why put “Masters preferred” in our job descriptions if we aren’t really going to use their knowledge?
  • A spirit of collaboration: More and more, young professionals realize that the huge social issues our nonprofits are trying to solve cannot be addressed by a single organization. Younger staffs working for nonprofits tend to be more willing to collaborate on projects, and naturally see the value of sharing information as part of the way we do the work. As big funding dries up, nonprofits will need to partner more to get the work done.
  • Mastery of social media and new technology: Current leaders need not fear that they must learn all about Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter. Let your younger employees take off with it and get the glory for your organization. We’re always thinking of ways to use social media to get more donations, more volunteers, more press attracted to our nonprofits. Why not let those ideas flourish?

While I certainly concede that the nonprofit sector is going to see challenging times ahead, I can also see so many ways that we can get through the bad economy even stronger on the other side if we only recognize the enormous opportunity for current leaders to partner with the next generation to come up with innovative solutions. It will take all of us to shift our mindsets, but it can be done. After all, most of us are starting the see the writing on the wall: the nonprofit sector needs to change or die. For now, I’m raising my fist in hopeful solidarity with my fellow Generation Y leaders like Allison Jones and Samuel Richard that we can use the resources we have to make the best of a bad situation.


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.

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