The civic role of nonprofits and the need for young friends groups posted 06/05/13

By Jill Lewin

With two of the top universities in the country located in St. Louis, there are thousands of young people from all over the country, and even the world, making the city their temporary homes. How do we convince those highly educated students to make St. Louis a permanent home once they graduate from student to young professional?

We’re not the only metropolitan area asking this question right now. Cities all over the country are having the same issue. Highly educated young professionals are leaving their college town in search of something better (job, quality of life, etc.). These young people often lack a feeling of connection or loyalty with the city they called home for the past three to five years.

This is where nonprofit organizations in St. Louis can really make a difference. If we can get more young people involved in philanthropic work throughout the community while they are still in college or as recent grads, they will form bonds not only with those organizations, but also with the people that work and volunteer at them. Those relationships create a bond between the student and the city that will increase the odds of keeping young people in town after graduation.

As a whole, young professionals usually volunteer for one of three reasons. Nonprofits need to focus on these reasons and develop a means to meet them:

  • Philanthropic responsibility
  • Socializing/ networking
  • Professional/personal development

Philanthropic responsibility

St. Louis is one of the most philanthropic cities in the country, and it shows by the large number of nonprofit organizations and volunteers in the area. Whether encouraged by family upbringing, volunteering as part of a college group, or just inspired by a sense of wanting to give back, young professionals and college students are looking to get involved and give back. They just need some direction!

Too often, nonprofits offer young professionals happy hours to attend or email newsletters to sign up for instead of real opportunities. These young volunteers want more from a nonprofit. They are not satisfied with reading a monthly email and imbibing a few cocktails. They want to work on projects, meet new people, learn skills, and ultimately make a real difference in the community in some way. Let’s help them do that! Nonprofits need to offer concrete opportunities for young people to get involved and then spread the word about them.

Socializing/networking

When volunteers reach out to me in hopes of getting involved, I always ask them why they want to donate their time. It helps me understand what they want to get out of it and how I can make that happen. More often than not, I get two answers from them – I want to make a difference in (insert their cause of choice here) and I want to meet more people.

Whether it’s a young professional who just moved to St. Louis for a new job or a college grad from a local university who stayed in town even though his/her friends all moved back home, meeting people always seems to be on the wish list. If a volunteer can build relationships while donating their time/talent at the nonprofit, it creates a connection to the organization that will keep the volunteer involved and engaged at a higher level.

Nonprofits that offer group volunteer opportunities – a neighborhood clean-up day, an event planning committee, a young friends group, etc. – will attract more young professionals. It’s an easy way to meet new people that are outside of the normal work or social circle. It’s also less awkward than a happy hour where strangers are trying to make small talk.

All of this socializing isn’t just to make friends either. A lot of young professionals also hope to make professional contacts that can help them land their dream job or at least advance their career. I don’t think anyone would deny that professional success in St. Louis is partly reliant upon who you know…

Professional/personal development

Nonprofits that are focused on a certain industry (e.g. medical, legal, graphic design) should consider creating mentor programs where young volunteers are paired up with more experienced members of the organization. It will bring new energy to the volunteer group and will also allow the young professional to learn from an expert in their field.

When volunteers want to take their mind off of work, they often turn to volunteering in hopes of learning or utilizing new skills. Want to learn to garden? There’s a nonprofit in St. Louis for that. Love the theater and want to learn what happens behind the scenes? There’s a nonprofit for that. Want to practice the foreign language you have been learning? There’s a nonprofit for that too. Many young professionals are looking for an opportunity to not only give back but to also gain experience or learn new hobbies.

Volunteering should be a mutually beneficial situation! It’s not just volunteers giving something. Nonprofits need to make it worthwhile to the volunteer as well.

If you build it, they WILL come

To steal a very well known movie line, if you build it, they will come. Young professionals are looking to give back, to create relationships and to make their communities a better place. If nonprofits focused some attention on creating volunteer opportunities specifically designed for young professionals, they would see more young volunteers signing up to get involved. It would create a new energy for the nonprofit, allow the young professional an opportunity to give back, and create a relationship that lasts for years. It could help them identify their future leaders.

By creating bonds with nonprofits and other philanthropic-minded people, young professionals will feel a connection and a sense of loyalty towards the city. That connection is what will keep them here. That connection will keep them engaged. That connection will make our city a better place.

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