THE BLOG
01/31/2013 10:28 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2013

A Field Guide for Recognizing Millennial Leadership

There's a lot of talk about what "the next generation of change looks like." I spent much of my first year as National Director of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network entrenched in discussions focused on leadership development and what this influx of millennials entering the workforce means for the nonprofit sector.

As is often reported, the millennial generation is the most racially and ethnically diverse that the United States has ever experienced. They are also the most open in their views on most social issues from religion to gender identity. And they are the most networked, preferring collaboration and teamwork, deeply invested in the wisdom of the masses, and trusting of crowd sourcing for the best ideas. This form of thinking has led to many of the social revolutions we've experienced as of late -- from the mass organizing we saw with the Occupy movement to the increasingly diverse ways we source our news.

And the people pulling these levers simply look different than the people our sector seems to be comfortable lifting up as leaders. They are brown, they are queer, sometimes they believe in God and sometimes they don't, they went to colleges you've never heard of and in many cases haven't graduated from college at all, they are documented and they are undocumented. Most noteworthy is that they are largely working en masse, known well in certain spheres by face or by avatar, then completely unknown in others, but highly influential nonetheless.

And yet as a sector we continue to insist on focusing on individual, heroic leadership (think beloved, high-impact organizations like Share Our Strength or Teach for America), searching this generation for new versions of this dated frame, and shaping formal opportunities for training and leadership development around it. In doing so, we are missing the opportunity to truly engage this generation, especially its leaders of color who, according to research, are especially drawn to more collaborative, network-driven leadership models.

Assuming that perhaps part of the problem is that, as a sector, we simply have yet to train our eyes to recognize this millennial approach to change as leadership, I thought I would offer some actual images -- something of a field guide, if you will. Below are a few folks who illustrate this new form of leadership extremely well. To read this as a list of "top millennial nonprofiteers to watch!" is to completely miss the point. I highlight them not because I believe they will eventually be the heads of powerful organizations or because they alone have created groundbreaking models for change, but because they are doing important work to move us toward a more just and equitable society -- and because who they are and how they operate makes it likely that their work will go unnoticed among the sector's establishment. More importantly, they represent a growing swath of Millennials that are doing important work in much the same way.

There's Heather Cronk, managing director of GetEqual, whose group played a major role in pushing controversial legislation like the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Her work focuses on unapologetically fighting for full LGBT equality, and in order to achieve this goal, she focuses on building networks rather than building an institution. "Many of GetEqual's core organizers work with multiple organizations, not just us. There's exponential power in that," she says. Moreover, her aim is not necessarily to build a beloved brand as many organizations are encouraged to do these days. "All social movements must have a small but mighty group of folks willing to serve as the battering ram -- willing to lose access, to lose reputation, to even lose funding streams in order to do what's right. We're happy for 'insider' groups to throw us under the bus -- in fact, I often suggest that they do so -- if it means that we all accomplish our goals faster." And it's working: "In the two and a half years that GetEQUAL has been organizing, we've seen this approach lead to a fundamental shift within the LGBT movement -- and we're now gaining more momentum and, more importantly, more concrete progress than anyone ever thought possible."

There's Hugo Polanco, who works as a Child Nutrition Programs Specialist for St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance in Phoenix. Outside of his day job, Hugo saw the changing political makeup of Arizona and the void of Latino leaders. He also recognized that while being twentysomething and Hispanic was a barrier from being seen as a leader in many spaces, it would be a major asset for recruiting the diverse campaign leaders and volunteers necessary for President Obama's reelection campaign. In his side job as an Organizing for America Fellow during the campaign season, Hugo represented the local campaign to major news outlets and helped to turn out the diverse base of voters that almost took the state in 2012.

There's Allison Jones, whose job as editor for Idealist.org is impressive in and of itself, but who is probably better known in most circles for the blog that she's maintained for the past five years. AllisonJ.org receives thousands of hits from millennials trying to figure out how to put their passion for social change into practice. As an African-American woman who grew up in the projects of Bed-Stuy and Brownsville, her social capital -- which has led Allison to be featured in outlets like Brazen Careerist and highlighted by powerful networks like Net Impact and Echoing Green -- comes not from a traditional pedigree but from her community of diverse peers who appreciate Allison's candor and passion and see their own experiences reflected in her beautifully-written, plainspoken posts.

There's Jamie Millard, a 2009 college graduate who, like so many of her generation, was left unemployed, confused, and forced to innovate. As the main wage earner of her household, she built a new, non-traditional resume that highlighted what she considers her primary identity: a storyteller. By day she's a Client Relationship Manager for Fast Horse, providing marketing services for some of the world's largest brands and most-loved nonprofits. But outside of the office, she helps her fellow nonprofiteers "find context, connections, and a little more human depth in a continually shallowing space" as publisher and editor-in-chief of Pollen (Minnesota's leading professional community for civic-minded connectors) and publishes off-the-wall, humorous fiction in Paper Darts(the literary arts magazine that she directs and co-founded).

And there are many, many more people I could be writing about.

The challenge ahead is to broaden our set of approaches to traditional work as well as talent and leadership development to make space for the wider variety of ways that this generation is working for change. Many organizations are already doing so by offering flexible schedules that allow employees to devote time to "slash careers" on the side or by encouraging employees to build their networks via organizations like YNPN. Equally important, however, and perhaps a much more personal, individual challenge will be for each of us to make peace with our current, often-heroic mental models of who and what leadership looks like. Then work tirelessly to expand that set of mental models to include folks like the ones described above.

This is what the next generation of change looks like.