Strengthening On-Ramps for Entry-Level Talent: Four Tips for Social Sector Organizations

Strengthening On-Ramps for Entry-Level Talent: Four Tips for Social Sector Organizations

Increasingly, young adults are interested in work that drives positive impact. It’s a major opportunity for social sector organizations to attract new talent, but only if we are intentional about building pathways for early-career professionals to enter the field.

Ratna Gill and Megan McGlinchey joined the Living Cities staff in June 2016 as recent college graduates. In this mini-series, they reflect on their experience entering the workforce, with a focus on the aspects of Living Cities’ organizational culture that are crucial for attracting, hiring and retaining talent.

There’s growing hunger among young people to engage in meaningful work. I hear it in the tenor of conversations with friends and peers, and a quick Google search of “millennial” and “mission-driven” turns up an almost comical amount of buzz (for millennials who hadn’t heard the news that we’re all about impact, get on board—the media says it’s a veritable trend!)

For employers in the social sector, which many argue has been inhibited by a talent shortage, there’s huge potential embedded in this shift: an influx of young adults in search of job opportunities that will be vehicles for creating positive impact. But it’s no guarantee that nonprofits and philanthropy will reap the benefits. In fact, as lines between sectors blur and new models like impact investing and social enterprise gain serious traction, these young and mission-driven individuals entering the workforce are faced with a broader array of paths to fulfill their desire to drive social change.

As I described in my last post, inroads to social sector organizations for entry-level workers may not be ready to accommodate the surge of traffic. Without intentional efforts to attract and develop staff members, nonprofits and philanthropy may end up being left behind by this wave of talent—and all of the energy, innovative potential, and collaborative problem-solving skills that they bring with them.

As a recent college graduate who experienced these dynamics first hand, here are a few considerations that could help strengthen those pathways:

1. Explore the in-betweens of full employment.

Programs like Americorps VISTA, and Teach for America allow early-career individuals to dive into hands-on, substantive work for a set period of time. They attract thousands of young adults each year who are committed to creating positive impact, eager to develop skills and learn more about an issue area, and often still unsure about their long-term plans.

But I’m confident there are hundreds of thousands more young people today who fit that exact description. Many millennials are open to nonlinear career paths, and want to use their own skills and interests as guideposts rather than relying on the rungs of a preordained ladder. I see this as an opportunity. Organizations that face hiring constraints, but still hope to attract and engage young people in their mission, can provide alternate, time-bound work arrangements instead—such as apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeships could help address the Catch 22 of the social sector…by equipping entry-level employees with the kind of on-the-job knowledge they lack.

Apprenticeships could also help address the Catch 22 of the social sector “skills gap” (organizations need workers with experience, but there aren’t sufficient opportunities for young people to gain it) by equipping entry-level employees with the kind of on-the-job knowledge that they lack, but without the often prohibitive commitment of a long-term contract. And for organizations that do have some hiring flexibility, it can be a great way for both parties to ensure that it’s a good match.

Certainly, many students still feel the pressure to secure a full-time job come graduation day—whether driven by social stigma or by financial necessity. But the more that apprenticeship programs are designed to be substantive and respected learning opportunities, the more young people will, I suspect, be amenable to accepting more modest income and a shorter-term stint right out of school in order to gain relevant, hands-on experience in an issue area they’re passionate about.

2. Go straight to the source: colleges and universities.

Many college students view their on-campus career services center as a valuable resource during their final years. But potential employers should see them as resources too—partners in the work of activating a pipeline of talent, whether as future employees or simply advocates with an understanding of the social sector. Whether or not your organization has available entry-level positions, opening the lines of communication with the local career counselors who provide direct support to job-seekers can help young people understand the field, and what kind of experience they’ll need to access opportunities down the road. It was information that I found, to my frustration, to be somewhat lacking at a career services center that wasn’t as well-oriented to non profits and philanthropy.

Additionally, some universities (including my own alma mater) have experimented with community-based courses that bake experiential learning opportunities into the curriculum. Partnerships with social sector organizations and social ventures—where there’s always work to be done—enable students to pair classroom theory with real-world practice. And they’re fantastic opportunities for students who may not be able to take on an internship or apprenticeship on top of a full course load.

3. Tout your networks.

One barrier preventing young people from taking on an internship or apprenticeship is that they don’t see it as a clear stepping stone to longer-term work. Plenty of organizations—especially smaller nonprofits—just don’t have capacity to bring on more full-time staff at a given moment, particularly at an entry level.

But nonprofit organizations don’t operate in a vacuum. Most are already plugged into the ecosystem of other organizations—nonprofits, advocacy groups, private sector actors or public agencies—that have a hand in similar or tangential social issues. Building a network of social-change organizations within a city or across an issue area that’s united in supporting the pipeline of young talent could help mitigate the challenge that most nonprofits don’t approach hiring in set “cycles,” but rather as needs arise. Members of the network could support each other in surfacing opportunities for full-time work, to help ensure that students who are committed to social change work are supported in finding ways to stay engaged.

Building a network of social-change organizations…that’s united in supporting the pipeline of young talent could help mitigate the challenge.

This could be as barebones as a Google Group to share new openings and opportunities in real-time. But it rests on the powerful assumption that the social sector is operating as a team, with the shared mission of developing human resources.

The more that such networks are strengthened and formalized, the more confident a young person can feel accepting an internship or an apprenticeship—in other words, a shorter-term posting or position with lower pay. Rather than a last resort or a way to bide time, they can enter into the arrangement feeling that it’s an intentional and meaningful step toward finding a full-time opportunity.

4. Commit to inclusion.

All my talk of building networks and reinforcing college pipelines means that these proposed solutions are susceptible to reinforcing another problem: being unintentionally exclusionary. When fielding and selecting candidates is predicated on networks and personal relationships, the question that we’ve got to ask is: who’s cut off from the opportunities to forge those connections in the first place? That can mean low-income and first-generation college students, who may not have the financial luxury of taking on unpaid internships, and who may be at a disadvantage when it comes to professional networks. Or students of color, who often don’t see themselves represented amongst the hiring managers or leadership teams of the organizations that they’re applying to. That’s just a start.

The good news is that it’s a question that I’ve heard posed many times—beginning with the college application process and into the professional realm across sectors. But I’d argue that for people just starting out in their careers, with little of their own experience to speak for them, the power of personal and professional networks plays an outsized impact in early success. Whether as high-touch as a mentor or as simple as a good word on your behalf from a distant connection, those networks can make all the difference between a student landing the critical first job and starting to build their own track record of competency, or being faced with a stack of rejections and forced to reevaluate their path.

For people just starting out in their careers…the power of personal and professional networks plays an outsized impact in early success.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is wrong or malicious; on the contrary, a word of recommendation from a colleague is an invaluable data point for a hiring manager trying to discriminate between a dizzying pile of nearly-identical resumes. But that doesn’t exempt us from searching for ways to ensure that this doesn’t systematically and unduly restrict certain students from having their resumes rise to the top of the stack based on their race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.

I won’t pretend that I fully know how to address this challenge. Plenty of people are grappling with this challenge, including our own organization. Nonetheless, if social sector organizations are committed to challenging the status quo and overcoming the tendencies that reinforce the divides we’re trying to bridge, then this is surely the place to think intentionally about entry-level hiring and experiment with ways to level the playing field.

One recommendation I would make is broadening our understanding of experience and expertise. This is certainly not a novel idea, but it’s a lens that we should ensure we’re applying to young people as well, many of whom won’t have the privilege to accept unpaid internships during their college career or be able to afford to pursue stipend-based apprenticeship programs like Americorps.

But there are other ways to gain important experience, not the least of which is first-hand expertise on the challenges that a particular organization is working to solve. That qualification could give them a leg-up on other candidates who would have to work to immerse themselves in that context while on the job. But I don’t know where that might show up on a resume. Or whether young people would feel empowered to speak to first-hand, experiential knowledge in a cover letter or an interview.

There is so much good work to be done in the world, with nonprofits, philanthropy and other social sector organizations continuing to play a huge role in driving it. And there’s a surge of talent eager to contribute. It should–and can–be a powerful match, if organizations are intentional about bridging the divides between supply and demand.

We welcome any questions, comments, or feedback you may have, and encourage you to follow our series on Hiring in the Social Sector. Stay tuned for the next post!


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