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Managing Millennials to Drive Performance at a Nonprofit

Managing Millennials to Drive Performance at a Nonprofit

by Paul Walters and Casandra Fritzsche
Managing Millennials to Drive Performance at a Nonprofit

For many years, nonprofit teams have been a force for good in this world; addressing issues of poverty, poor health, economic development, education and much more. With an influx of millennials into the nonprofit sector, managers need to strategically change their approach in leading and managing this group to drive performance and achieve the mission of their organizations. Gallup recommends that organizations change their culture from the old will to the new will, based on Gallup's research of millennials.

My Purpose

Common assumption: All of our employees know, value and are driven by the purpose of our work; it's why they jumped into the nonprofit sector to begin with.

Response: For every meal served to someone living on the street, for every animal saved or child vaccinated, there are stacks of paperwork, budgets to balance and meetings to attend. While the heart of the nonprofit mission falls on the front-line staff, the engine of the operation rests on your fundraisers, administrators, managers and directors.

Solution: Retaining top talent means continually connecting organizational purpose to staffing at every layer. More than any other generation, millennials need to see and connect their work to the purpose of the organization. Each employee, from the frontline staff to the cleaning crew to the managers to the IT team, need to know and feel how his or her role ties into the greater purpose of the organization.

My Development

Common assumption: Our organization does not have the financial resources to invest in developing my team.

Response: The majority of millennials (59%) report that opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them in a job. Contrast this with Gen Xers (44%) and baby boomers (41%), and it's clear that nonprofit organizations and managers need a strategic shift in making development a priority.

Solution: The good news is nonprofit managers can still develop their team with limited resources:

  • Set aside a small amount in the annual budget for development opportunities for each employee, and make it part of the company's value proposition for job seekers.
  • Search and apply for grants and funding where employee development is a priority -- they do exist.
  • Develop a mentoring program where millennials can work closely with and learn from more senior-level staff.
  • Develop internal development training for millennials that will build their capacity.
  • Many conferences, workshops and educational events have scholarships or provide a discount for nonprofits.

It's also important to continue to communicate and demonstrate these development opportunities to millennials, so they know when the next one is coming to keep them engaged. If the above is not motivation enough to invest in development, Gallup's research estimates that the lack of millennial engagement at work leading to turnover (driven, to some extent, by insufficient development opportunities), costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually. Considering the limited resources most nonprofits work with, they can no longer afford to ignore the need to provide development opportunities for their millennial staff members.

My Coach

Common assumption: With limited resources and human capital, I do not have the time to coach my team members.

Response: According to Gallup's research, 58% of millennial job seekers say the "quality of manager" (or having a great boss) is considered extremely important. Simply put, millennials seek managers who can support, position, empower and engage them, and who care about them as employees and people. They aren't looking to be managed but instead want to be coached. Managers who are good coaches understand the fundamental factors that motivate each worker's performance and enable him or her to optimize that performance.


  • Focus on job clarity and priorities by setting clear expectations.
  • Provide ongoing feedback and communication through check-in (not check-up) emails, calls and in-person meetings.
  • Provide them with opportunities to learn and grow (development).
  • Ensure a level of accountability; millennials appreciate this and expect it of others as well.
  • Take time to figure out what motivates each employee.

An unwillingness to adjust management strategy from managing to coaching will risk decreased employee engagement, decreased productivity and ultimately may compromise the services provided or the contributions to the organization's mission.

My Ongoing Conversations

Common assumption: The annual reviews I give to my team members provide them with needed feedback to improve their performance.

Response: Ongoing conversations, through the lenses of traditional management, looks more like a sanctioned disciplinary discussion, growth plan or annual review. Retaining millennials, in an often low-pay, high-turnover market, means flipping this conversation on its head.

Solution: To retain top humanitarian workforces, conversations should be: (a) regular and ongoing, and (b) have a positive approach. Think about your team. What are they doing right? How can you elevate performance from good to great by leveraging your team's existing talents? Check in with them briefly on Skype, email, phone or text. These little considerations will pay great dividends.

My Strengths

Common assumption: By maintaining the strengths of my team and helping them improve upon their weaknesses, we will achieve greater performance results.

Response: Decades of Gallup research show that employees who get to use their strengths are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life, and have 7.8% greater productivity. While important for any generation, this insight is particularly relevant for millennials. Millennials are more likely to jump ship if the work they do is uninteresting or not in their wheelhouse of strengths. Millennials are drawn to what they do best and naturally want to leverage their strengths. Gallup has found that 70% of millennials who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths are engaged, and 62% who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics plan to be with their current company for at least one year. Gallup research also discovered that only 28% of millennials strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths, leaving plenty of room for improvement. Focusing on weaknesses only serves to prevent failure; a focus on strengths ensures success.

Solution: To increase impact and drive millennial employee engagement and job satisfaction, spend time helping them understand, appreciate and lead with their strengths. Find a way to align your employees' strengths with the purpose and mission of the organization. Gallup's CliftonStrengths and advanced strengths courses offer a tangible approach to driving performance through strength-based management and ensuring employee engagement.

My Life

Common assumption: Our mission is so important everyone on the team wants/needs to make their life this job.

Response: First, the good news: Millennials were likely drawn to your organization (and continue to stay) because of its mission. The bad news: Millennials are not committed to your management or a lack of work-life balance. An over-reliance on the organizational mission may lead to neglecting an overworked, underpaid workforce that is all too willing to switch jobs if the opportunity arises. Only half of the millennial population strongly agrees that they'll be staying in their jobs a year from now.

Millennials grew up watching their parents sacrifice family time to stay late at the office, work through vacations, and undertake loads of stress all for the purpose of "getting ahead" or ensuring an organization meets its mission. Millennials are not their parents.

Solution: Manage potential burnout by ensuring millennials have an adequate work-life balance. Provide flexible work schedules to accommodate personal interests and activities, and offer generous paid time off instead of large salaries. Work with human resources to encourage well-being programs in all five elements -- purpose, social, financial, physical and community. Taking the time to focus on and prioritize the lives of each team member will translate into improved business outcomes.

Jim Clifton, Gallup's CEO, wrote: Millennials will change the world decisively more than any other generation. Armed with this information and new management strategies, nonprofits will be better positioned to leverage the power millennials offer to drive performance and achieve an organization's mission.

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:

Paul Walters' Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Strategic, Communication, Arranger, Competition and Woo.

Casandra Fritzsche's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Input, Positivity, Futuristic, Strategic and Learner.

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