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Why Your Nonprofit Needs Gen Y

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There are many New Yorkers who lead "double lives," as Time Out New York reported in an issue earlier this year. I can relate. I'm a prom Web site editor who in my after-hours and weekends doubles as director of the MacDella Cooper Foundation, a charity supporting orphans in Liberia. Of course, I didn't make it into Time Out's story, among such salacious profiles as the legal eagle who's a go-go dancer and the doctor who's a pothead. But balancing my paid work for prom with my unpaid work for orphans is what I love to do as a 24-year-old New Yorker.

If you run a nonprofit, do you have someone under 25 in your inner circle? If not, I highly recommend cultivating that young leader, as MacDella Cooper, the founder of the nonprofit I direct, has done with me. And if you're 25 or younger, I can reassure you that you're more qualified than you might think to lead a double life in the nonprofit and corporate world.

When I was a women's and gender studies minor in college, we always tossed up the Betty Friedan debate of whether women could have careers and be mothers. But never did we discuss whether women and men could balance careers in the for-profit world with unpaid ones in the nonprofit sector. Discovering that this is entirely doable -- granted with less sleep and more caffeine -- has been the greatest life surprise after graduating with the Class of 2007.

My age and lack of prior nonprofit management used to be the cards I'd never want to show anyone as Director of Operations for the MacDella Cooper Foundation (MCF). But now I realize my youth is actually a lucky hand. I'm not saying that the relative inexperience of a Gen Y director is preferable to employing a full-time executive if your operating budget allows it. But I believe you can grow substantially, especially without a salaried staff, if you leverage a team of Gen Y rookies to help your MVPs -- the prestigious board members and top donors -- carry out your mission. Here's where I think it begins:

  • Find one Gen Y person energized about your cause, share your vision, set attainable goals together, and let her figure out how to reach them. We find it works well to let MacDella stay focused on financial strategy, strategic alliances, and top donors, and let my team and me tackle marketing and communications and event production.
  • Let your Gen Y leader form and manage her team. Allow her to vet any newcomers so they don't disrupt the existing dynamic. The U.S. operations of MCF are managed entirely by my team of friends who have come out of the Facebook walls. They saw what I was posting about the cause and asked what they could do to help. It was a totally organic, natural way of finding dedicated volunteers who work so hard because they're having fun socializing while doing it.
  • Value your Gen Y leader as much as your seasoned board members. Realize her Facebook network of hardworking Millennials is as valuable as your Rolodex of top donors. Let their fresh marketing ideas and boundless energy fuel your galas.
  • Trust your Gen Y team to put your cause out there on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Monitor, but don't micromanage.

MCF is not the only 501c3 I know to make this dual-generation leadership work. I recently discovered Katie Riley, a volunteer of the Haiti Outreach Program in Tennessee. I was surprised to learn she's only a sophomore at the University of Tennessee. But in the last two weeks, her online social media skills led her to find She's the First, the online campaign for girls' education that I created for MCF and similar educational organizations. Since joining our network, she's found four new sponsors for girls in Haiti. "My team [of college students] is all about getting the word out," Katie wrote me. "The first generation started a program, but we're trying to start a movement!"

If you're under 25, you're not too inexperienced to aspire to board membership. You have a priceless social media presence that is going to magnify and market the mission of any nonprofit board. As you're blogging, tweeting, and photographing, you're bring transparency to the cause, which encourages people to open up their hearts and checkbooks. There's no reason why you couldn't hold a more senior position in your unpaid life than you do in your paid one -- everything I do for MCF makes me better in my full-time job.

Two generations, one cause. Two jobs, one life. Make it a goal for 2010 - the symbolism is already in the digits. And hey, Time Out, if you want to revisit the meaning of a double life in next year's edition, tweet me! I can show you plenty of Gen Yers doing well in school or corporate America by day, and doing good for the world by night.