Posted by: Nathaniel | July 2, 2008

The nonprofit vs. government service gap

A Fine Blog posts on the gap between nonprofit volunteerism and governmental public service among the “millenial” generation. The post notes that nonprofit-based volunteerism and service face issues of both scale and scope when it comes to addressing the big problems.

One of the best points:

Private voluntary efforts can pick and choose the issues and populations with which to work. Organizations like Volunteers of America choose to work in very distressed communities with people who have significant, sometimes overwhelming, problems. Most groups don’t – and that is their choice, they are private efforts and can choose where and with whom to work. Through public policy, government is supposed to serve all people and communities. (If you want a refresher of how important this concept was to the Founding Fathers, take a peek at the Federalist papers, you will be taken aback, I think, by their passion over this particular issue.) We know that it often doesn’t, but, this is what government is intended to do, and what idealist young people can press it to do better, to help those least able to help themselves by directing resources to large public problems.

I posted this response as a comment:

Great post and important discussion. I think the problem you’ve identified is a real one, but I’m optimistic. I graduated from school a few years ago and since then have been designing undergrad focused global service and social entrepreneurship programs. I think the common denominator with young people today is a desire for real impact. Whether that impact comes from the nonprofit, for profit, or government sector seems to matter a little bit less than if there is real impact or not.

Young people start with volunteerism because its something they can do now. There ARE big youth advocacy movements (particularly around Darfur) but a lot of young people (rightly) question just how effective they are. That said, the sort of sector agnosticism I mentioned above means that as people graduate and begin to survey their options, they’re looking across the spectrum of opportunities to make a life that has an impact on problem solving.

If public service expands to include meaningful government work, I do think people will join. Barack’s national service plan/tuition credits are something that I think will find major traction with people. At the end of the day though, us millennial are idealistic but we’re not fuzzy idealists and pure altruism, charitable sentiments, and fine rhetoric won’t engage us the way opportunities to make a real difference will.

Thanks for posting and keep up the great writing!

What do others think?



  1. I agree. The key idea is what can you do NOW, what impact and response can you get NOW. Students (and youth in general) have great enthusiasm and energy, and that combined with a bit of funding is the best way to engage us.

  2. Agreed. So pragzz, do you think more young people who get involved in nonprofit volunteerism today will eventually find their way into government?

  3. I think that the temporal urgency can be overrated, though – on the part of both the organizations and the volunteers. The thing about social problems – I am thinking of public education in particular – is that they don’t go away, they simply take new forms (or get worse). The desire for instant results is, I think, one reason why ‘millenials’ turn away from service-type work and go into a field like consulting. Making a difference isn’t something you can do just by showing up a few days in a row – it requires a sustained commitment.

    On the subject of aversion to government jobs, Paul Light had a nice piece in the Times this month saying, in a word, that government does not use labor effectively. (Here is the link:
    People, especially young idealistic people, are ready to work hard and want to do a good job, and the government’s most visible performances recently have been, well, bungled. I think it’s interesting that he says that, because it echoes the experiences a number of my friends have had in nonprofits – you show up ready to learn and work, and they simply don’t know how to use you. Whether bureaucratic lethargy or an absence of resources is the cause of the mediocrity, it’s frustrating.

    It seems a little petulant to me sometimes to complain about the absence of opportunity to make an impact – the New England puritan in me says that making an impact isn’t something that any organization can just deliver to an employee who is there for 18 months. It’s really hard! However, I think that what I require (I can’t speak for all millenials) is the idea that one day, what I am doing could have an impact. And there are ways in which both government and nonprofits fail to provide that.

  4. Susan, I think your point is well taken about urgency. Its difficult to understand that the potential to see long-term impact in action is often an unrealistic expectation for someone just getting into nonprofit or government work.

    I also think that the disheartening experience for many people just coming into their first jobs in nonprofits or government service is that its their first exposure to the factors which make the sector difficult: the immensity and interconnection of problems, bureaucratic madness, task lethargy, lack of clear authority/responsibility etc.

    I think more and more people of our generation have the acumen to understand which opportunities (maybe Teach for America, for example) have “impact now, larger impact later” built into them. Maybe government jobs just aren’t that. And if that’s the case, its going to be all the more important to improve the on-the-job experience of people participating in government service before simply everyone just drops out.

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