Stories about millennials are unavoidable in the media today. We’ve all heard how they’re knocking at the door to the corner office and already taking the lead in politics, business, philanthropy, and everywhere else. Like the boomers in their day, millennials will be the largest proportion of any generation in the U.S. workforce by 2025, and their unique set of characteristics will reshape our world. But too often, their uniqueness is being viewed with apprehension, as the entire demographic is painted with critical terms like self-centered, careerist, apathetic, coddled, materialistic, and unfocused. The suggestion seems to be that they aren’t up to meeting the challenges we face as a nation and a world. Even more problematic, when it comes to marketing products, the term "millennial" has become almost synonymous with the narrow slice of the larger generation who is white and upwardly mobile.
We beg to differ on both points, because we’ve seen what millennial leaders are capable of. Our two organizations, the nonprofit venture philanthropy fund New Profit and the professional services firm Deloitte, have collaborated for 15 years to help visionary social entrepreneurs build high-impact organizations and problem-solving ecosystems, with a goal of breaking down the systemic barriers standing between people and opportunity in America. We have seen every type of leader, organization, and approach during that time, so we’re rarely surprised. But recently, we’ve been amazed to meet millennials from diverse backgrounds and sectors who are fearlessly ignoring the negative chatter about their generation and instead are showing us the future. We want to introduce you to a few people and groups that show how this unique generation is already changing the way we live, work, and solve problems:
Vedette Gavin and Derwin Dubose, New Majority Community Labs (NMCL): Created to shift power from social sector institutions, most of which lack demographic and socioeconomic diversity, to people and communities, NMCL uses the power of big data to amplify the effectiveness of on-the-ground organizing. As cofounder Vedette Gavin said recently, "Don’t create a plan to help me without including me!" NMCL hires people in communities to collect and analyze data, then works with them to create locally led, locally funded solutions. While still in the seed stage, NMCL has already launched a program in the under-resourced Ivy City neighborhood of Washington, D.C. And bigger expansion plans are in the works.
The MBA students at the Deloitte Foundation’s national case competition: For the first time this year, the Deloitte Foundation focused its annual case competition on social impact, asking MBA students to craft a new organizational strategy for New Profit, rather than the classic profit-oriented corporate puzzles. The students were given less than 12 hours to immerse themselves in complex issues relating to the evolution of philanthropy and the social entrepreneurship movement and prepare a presentation for senior leaders from Deloitte and the social impact community. We were absolutely amazed at their insightfulness, energy, and passion.
Alejandro Gac-Artigas, Springboard Collaborative: With a mission to close the reading achievement gap, Springboard Collaborative takes a unique in-sourced staffing approach by training public school teachers to collaborate with parents on reading achievement, using an ingeniously inexpensive approach that works within existing budgets to build lasting internal capacity in schools. Springboard Collaborative is truly redefining parent-teacher collaboration and, in turn, transforming school communities and optimizing student-learning outcomes.
This is just a sampling of what we’ve seen among millennials who are taking different routes toward social impact in different sectors. Contrary to the critics, we see three traits in common across the best and brightest of this generation that give us good reason to believe in their ability to make real headway on deeply rooted social challenges:
The venture philanthropy movement, and much of philanthropy more broadly, has long been focused on finding and scaling great nonprofits as an avenue to systemic change. This is an important approach, but we’ve found that it doesn’t go far enough or fast enough to solve big problems. The philanthropic sector, with more millennials involved, is now starting to work in partnership with others from government and business, putting more focus on collaborative, cross-sector approaches.
They are pursuing social impact wherever they are, starting organizations that blur the lines between for-profit and nonprofit, making values-driven buying decisions, and looking at cross-sector collaboration as required for social problem solving. It’s almost as if there never had been an assumption that driving social change was only the job of the social sector.
In a social media-driven world where millennials seem to flock to the flashiest new product or trend, we are inspired to see how millennials also focus so sharply on impact. Millennials make decisions based on personal values first and foremost, and the pursuit to maximize impact is at the center of what shapes all of their thinking and choices.
All of this points to millennials holding considerable potential for shaking up our pursuit of social impact in a very good way. Where today’s world has scattered experiments in new models that we know to have potential—efforts to put outcomes ahead of organizational missions, pursue multipronged solutions, seamlessly combine the strengths of all sectors, and manage even profit-seeking organizations based on strong values—millennials are poised to learn from those experiments and make them the norm.
As we strive to make America a more equitable playing field, how can we not only invent new models but also improve the structures that already stand? That is a question that, more than any other generation, millennials need to lead the way in answering.
Vanessa Kirsch is the founder and CEO of New Profit, a venture philanthropy fund that works to break down systemic barriers to opportunity in America.
Dana O'Donovan is a director with Deloitte Consulting and COO of Monitor Institute.
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