Global Policy Forum

Generation NGO


Gen Y Charities: Look What I Made

By Patrick White

Globe and Mail
March 21, 2008

Unimpressed with the bureaucracy of big charities, twentysomethings are going the DIY route and launching their own non-profits. Are they brats who don't play well with others - or just misunderstood?

Two years ago, a University of Manitoba undergrad named Jesse Hamonic began feeling pangs of status guilt as he travelled to and from economics classes. He had the trickle-down theory and Keynesian economics down cold. But passing by homeless people in Winnipeg, he saw little evidence of theory in practice. "Here I am paying $6,000 for a good education and a bright future," he remembers thinking, "and these people can't even afford to eat." He tried volunteering at a few well-established local charities. To his shock, they turned him away. "It's like pulling teeth trying to volunteer for them," he recalls. "You need reference letters. You need to fill out all kinds of paperwork. It was like applying for university all over again. "

So Mr. Hamonic followed a path blazed by hundreds of other students in recent years. He began his own charity, a nationwide organization of university food banks called Student Harvest. Last year he launched two more groups: links established charities with a large pool of student volunteers who want to avoid the application rigmarole that Mr. Hamonic faced; and Wave of Hope gives students a pair of workboots and sends them to New Orleans for a week. Mr. Hamonic, 22, is now working on non-profit number four, which will place high-school volunteers with food banks and organizations such as Habitat for Humanity. And, oh yeah, he just started law school.

Both his age and audacity place Mr. Hamonic firmly among Generation Y - the headstrong, attention-weak cohort born between 1980 and 1995 that's reinventing the way we volunteer. They're bemused by the dense bureaucracies and regimented campaigns of big non-profits such as Amnesty International, the Red Cross and the World Wildlife Fund. But rather than fight the power, they're stealing it, forming small, nimble charities that rely on blogs and Facebook networks rather than onerous mail campaigns and donor drives. They're smart. They're driven. And for some, they're a little vexing.

"One thing that bothers me is that they're missing the wisdom that existing non-profits have spent generations picking up," says Linda Graff, a non-profit consultant and author of several books on volunteer management. "Those who run charities, they know a thing or two. The upstarts don't realize this." With about 150,000 registered charities already operating across the country, the sudden addition of hundreds more will ultimately put the squeeze on non-profits, according to Ms. Graff. "All these new charities, combined with the dying off of old charities, will undoubtedly create chaos in the non-profit sector."

That spectre has prompted some to question Gen Y motives. A recent Youthography-MySpace poll showed that while four out of five youths aged 15 to 24 had supported a charity in the last year, 68 per cent of them wanted more recognition for their good deeds. So are they self-centred brats who don't play well with others - or just misunderstood?

"I've heard that I'm doing this just to pad my résumé." says Jess Sloss, a business student at Capilano College in Vancouver who is launching Watch for Change, a non-profit video site with advertising revenue going entirely to charity."But this is about making a difference. The option of volunteering for a big organization and licking stamps all day is not that appealing. We want to show what we can do."

Teachers in Capilano College's Global Stewardship program, which trains students for NGO work, have noticed a flood of this bold optimism in recent years. Several current and former students in the small program have formed their own non-profits after dismal experiences working for larger organizations."They're taking up the call for action in ways that my generation hasn't," says program co-ordinator Rita Isola, 40. "They're natural leaders. And if the NGOs won't let them lead right away then, dammit, they'll go out and lead themselves."

The barriers to starting a non-profit are lower than ever. Gen Yers with broad networks of online contacts can reach thousands with little more than an Internet connection. "All you do," says Mr. Hamonic, "is throw up a website, put out a couple press releases, get picked up on a few blogs around the world and, all of a sudden, you have a firestorm of phone calls. I couldn't imagine doing this kind of work 30 or 40 years ago."

Still, he does encounter some resistance. "The student unions especially have frowned on us, saying they have their own food banks and that all the collected food should stay on campus." Some established NGOs have already started changing recruiting strategies to accommodate the new wave of entrepreneurial volunteers. Rather than pull student volunteers in to stuff envelopes, Oxfam Canada encourages some interested students to stay home and talk up the charity online. They've also launched a social networking site specifically for its campus groups across the country. In two years, the number of campus Oxfam groups has gone from two to 13.

Most charities, however, haven't adapted their recruitment initiatives. "Most non-profits don't have the slightest idea what volunteers want and what they will do and won't do," says Ms. Graff. "They're completely out of tune. They keep offering the same old jobs without understanding that the entire volunteer labour force is undergoing a huge transition." In working with non-profits across the country, Ms. Graff has noticed that new volunteers tend have seasonal, episodic work patterns and that older, stalwart volunteers are creeping into their 80s. "That's going to be the death of some charities," she says. "But we need to let some of them die off. If the issue is important enough, one of these young people will come along and reincarnate it."

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