Engaging Millennial employees with philanthropic volunteer opportunities

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JANE MENTZINGER

If it feels like your co-workers are getting younger and younger, it’s probably true. According to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Pew Research Center, Millennials overtook Generation Xers in 2016 as the largest slice of the American labor pie.

Negative stereotypes abound about Millennials. You know the ones: Millennials are entitled. They flit from job to job. They’re me-centric, not team players.

That certainly hasn’t been my experience with Millennials. As a seasoned (read: Baby Boomer) CEO of a Chicago nonprofit, I rely on a team mostly made up of dedicated young professionals to help empower 75,000 Chicago Public School (CPS) students to stay on the path to graduation. I suspect my positive experience mirrors that of leaders in the business world. From Silicon Valley to Chicagoland, Millennials are bringing their talents to bear, driving society-shifting innovations and bottom-line profit growth.

The success of many businesses rests on their ability to attract and retain talented Millennials, and some strategies may be particularly effective to accomplish the job. According to a recent survey of Millennial professionals by Deloitte, for example, younger workers are eager for business leaders to “be proactive about making a positive impact in society — and to be responsive to (their) employees’ needs.” At the same time, the survey revealed that Millennials hold a dim view of corporate motivations, with 75 percent of respondents expressing that corporations focus too narrowly on their own agendas rather than considering the greater good of society.

My team at Communities In Schools (CIS) of Chicago works closely with our business partners to satisfy young professionals’ hunger to give back by offering opportunities to mentor CPS students. It’s not a tough sell. Once we educate businesses on the level of need in CPS — almost 80 percent of its students live in low-income homes and often have limited opportunities to explore career options — plenty want to get involved. It’s usually just a matter of figuring out the best way to make it easy for their busy employees to get involved.

A strategy that we’ve honed to engage socially conscious employees is what I like to call flip-the-classroom experiences. We take the students to the company, so the workplace becomes the classroom. There are many benefits to this. For students, it’s an opportunity to expand their horizons and demystify the professional workplace. School principals often tell me that their students rarely venture out of their neighborhood, so visiting a sleek Loop skyscraper or suburban office can be a paradigm-shifting experience in itself. For the employees who participate in the program, the students’ visit is a great way to connect with their city and feel like they’re contributing directly to a worthy cause: the future of young people.

At CIS of Chicago, we believe that programs don’t change people; positive relationships do. So, after taking a tour of the host company, each student is paired with a professional to participate in a goal-setting activity. First, they talk about the connection between doing well in school and landing a good job. Then they each map out personal goals to work on. Students might commit to improving their attendance, or getting an A in math. Millennial mentors might have a goal of achieving better work life balance. Together they work to identify steps they need to take to achieve their goals. Students and mentors alike leave the experience with a sense of connection and a renewed energy to achieve their goals.

While our organization is focused on linking Chicago area companies and students, the flip-the-classroom model could be replicated by any Chicagoland business. There are several thousand public schools in our metropolitan area, many with students who crave more time with caring adults. Got a team full of Millennials raring to find a good cause to support? Your neighborhood school might be a perfect place to channel their passion.

• Jane Mentzinger is the CEO of Communities In Schools of Chicago.

The organization partners with 175 Chicago Public Schools to help students succeed in school and stay on the path to graduation. Learn more at cisofchicago.org.

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