Making Compassion Cool: Nonprofits Struggle to Bring in the Next Generation
The Wall Street Journal (10/7/2004)
While working for a nonprofit Jewish group, 25-year-old Micah Aron created a short antiterrorism film titled "72 Virgins." It focused on suicide bombers who believe they'll receive 72 virgins in heaven.

The film contends that they've been misinformed: They actually receive "one 72-year-old virgin." The script was obviously in questionable taste, and the nonprofit's organizers were nervous; the film hasn't yet been released. But Mr. Aron argues that the film's irreverence will connect with today's 20-somethings.

"The typical nonprofit is run by older people who aren't in touch with my age group," says Mr. Aron. "They need to push the envelope. We're the MTV generation. Things have to be quick, accessible, funny."

More social-service groups, struggling to lure a new generation of volunteers, donors and future leaders, are recognizing this -- and they're seeking input from young people like Mr. Aron. These organizations are trying to understand why so many bright young professionals aren't getting involved in social-service work. One reason, young people say, is that stodgy organizations are unreceptive to inventive ideas.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Aron was invited to Los Angeles to join a three-day think tank mounted by Jewish philanthropists and social-service professionals. The philanthropists -- including Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson and former hedge-fund manager Michael Steinhardt -- spent about $500,000 to gather 145 of the nation's brightest, most successful Jewish 20-somethings. And rather than just indoctrinate the young people about charitable work, the philanthropists listened.

Young attendees told them that they're easily distracted; if they take a job or volunteer at a nonprofit and aren't moved or impressed, they'll quickly quit. They said they bristle at hierarchies, preferring to work collaboratively, or to craft their own job descriptions or programs. They often prefer "episodic" volunteering for various causes, rather than long-term commitments to one group. And many are frustrated by traditional nonprofits that marginalize people who are creative or edgy.

Mr. Aron's "72 Virgins" -- created for the not-for-profit Jewish Impact Films -- features a witch-like old woman in an "I Dream of Jeannie" costume. It ends with the message: "Read the fine print. Terrorism: It's ugly." Mr. Aron says the film isn't intended to offend older women or Muslims. (Jewish Impact Films was founded this year by several Hollywood producers. It offers fellowships to young filmmakers' to create projects on Israel advocacy, spirituality, and fighting terrorism.)

Other social-service groups have also begun using the "hip" factor to woo younger people. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago has an ad campaign running on billboards and in publications aimed at young adults. It asks: "Can't cool people be compassionate, too?"

Certainly, younger people can be compassionate. But truth is, these days it's more complicated than that. Studies show that 20-somethings are less apt to volunteer or make donations than their elders, and there are many reasons. Transient young people don't feel connected to the local Jaycees or Kiwanis clubs, and don't have time or patience for monthly luncheons. Working women are too busy to join social-service groups, which means leadership roles today are often left to elderly women.

"The World War II generation joined more, gave more money, more time, more blood, but they didn't pass these traits to their children and grandchildren," says Robert Putnam, a Harvard University public-policy professor. "Every year we lose a slice of the most civically engaged people and add a slice of people who don't have their grandparents' habits of giving."

In "Bowling Alone," Prof. Putnam's book about the ways people have grown detached from each other, he documents a 50% to 60% decline in memberships at 39 service organizations since their highs during the 1960s, from PTA groups to bowling leagues to the NAACP.

Many civic institutions, from the Red Cross to the Rotary, were founded between 1880 and 1910. "Those clubs were the right invention for that time," Prof. Putnam says. He encourages forward-thinking nonprofits to invite young people to help invent new models for social-service work.

One example that had young people talking at the Jewish think tank: "Operation Bubbe," a program in which 100 young 20-somethings are heading to Florida next month to take their bubbes (Yiddish for "grandmothers") and other seniors to the polls. Founder Mik Moore, 30 years old, pitched the idea to a more established nonprofit Democratic Jewish organization, but was turned down.

Mr. Moore says nonprofits must recognize that young people today revel in experimentation. Operation Bubbe is "humorous and hip," he says, but it also has heart. After the Florida ballot mess in 2000, "we were offended by the way Jewish seniors were portrayed. Late-night talk shows made fun of them. These are our bubbes. We want to protect them."

At the Art Institute of Chicago, new president James Cuno recognizes the need to lure a new generation of patrons with big new ideas. But trying to be trendy isn't the full answer, he says. "You don't want to patronize them, and assume they're only interested in the video art of their times."

He hopes to encourage a decades-long process that helps today's young people fall in love with the museum as patrons and staffers. Older board members will serve as mentors. "Businesses devote resources to research and development," he says. "We think of young people as our R&D.; The returns won't come for 20 years."
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