What Potential Does the Nonprofit Sector Hold for Today's Graduates?

Posted on
4 Oct 2017
by Hugh O’Reilly, Director of Development

The Gradireland Graduate Careers Fair 2017 took place on Wednesday 4th October in the RDS. I was kindly invited to share the stage with Adrian McCarthy, Recruitment Coordinator- 2into3 for a session on careers in the nonprofit sector. Adrian heads up the ‘2into3 Not-for-Profit Graduate Programme’, which is the only pan-sectoral graduate programme for the nonprofit sector in Ireland.

We’re not good at promoting ourselves. When you see the efforts being made by the big firms to entice graduates into their organisations we have a long way to go. 2into3 Graduate Programme seeks to address that, and we in The Wheel are happy to champion it.

And it’s not like it’s very hard either, nor does it need to involve beanbags and foosball tables in the staff common area to attract people into a career in this sector. Only on Monday, I was reading Paul Mooney’s ‘Confessions of a Consultant’ blog and he gives 10 commandments on getting excellent performance from people;  “the fall off in the practice of formal religion has left a ‘purpose gap’ in many peoples lives. High-performance organisations’ manage to tap into this potential energy. A growing body of research suggests that an extra 30+% of effort is available… While it’s difficult to generalize, there’s good evidence to suggest the following: While most of us initially focus on ‘paying the mortgage’, once this is achieved we need a higher order purpose to get into 5th gear” He then goes on to cite SVP as an example of recruiting volunteers to deliver their purpose annually.

And purpose is important because we have a generation coming into the workforce who are as interested in finding purpose in their work as they are in the pay cheque. The Holy Grail is finding the two together!

So things like the graduate programme 2into3 are pioneering are important for our sector because we need to market our sector as an attractive career choice for today’s graduates, tomorrow’s leaders.

By contrast, when I was growing up the only people I knew whose full-time job was in a charity either wore a clerical collar or a habit. With the opportunity to don a habit already closed off to me the 50% of remaining opportunities seemed to come with a recommended diet of abstinence, celibacy, self-denial and self-restraint and I knew if I got over all the other hurdles the self-restraint would do for me in the end so considering a vocation was never really on my radar.

Fast forward 15 years later to 2010 when I started in The Wheel and my worldview was opened to a thriving community and voluntary sector where I found, and witnessed, ‘purpose’ on a daily basis. A sector that was, to that point, invisible in plain sight to me, despite the 149,000 other souls who appeared to be working in it (www.benefacts.ie).

And the landscape for the nonprofit sector is continually changing, and will likely be unrecognisable in 15 or twenty more years’ time when these graduates have established careers here.

At a policy level in Europe, there is a drive to tackle ‘societal challenges’ and emphasis on civil society engagement in outcomes focussed research and public patient involvement (PPI) in health are changing how the sector is viewed as a place for ‘serious’ active research and innovation.

The Department for Business, Enterprise & Innovations’ 5-year strategy Innovation 2020 devotes a whole chapter to social innovation and the economy. The Irish Research Council has supported the development of the Engaged Research Report through Campus Engage to identify how Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) can better engage in active community-based research while the Health Research Board is actively seeking Public Patient Involvement (PPI) research projects through its ignite programme. The EPA is taking a keen interest in sustainable communities from a social, economic and environmental perspective as are Teagasc and other state agencies and departments while the government established the Social Innovation Fund in 2013. The ecosystem is developing apace.

The type of evidenced-based research and impact measurement that these policy drivers will demand will mean that today’s nonprofit is going to increasingly need graduates with skills in data analytics, field research, innovation, entrepreneurship, ICT and a wider variety of skills that we have not even though about in order to succeed in the society of the future. I cannot even wrap my head or begin to fathom the implications of AI (Artificial Intelligence) for our sector. But maybe someone younger can see further into the distance? More and more we are going to need evidence-based research to prove that community-based interventions and supports can tackle societal challenges and make a real and lasting change in people’s lives.

And Ireland is well placed to do this and to capitalise on its potential.

"In 2014 I met Mitchell Netburn of Project Renewal while on a trip to New York. He told me at the time that there were 70,000+ children homeless or in emergency accommodation in New York. "

In 2014 I met Mitchell Netburn of Project Renewal while on a trip to New York. He told me at the time that there were 70,000+ children homeless or in emergency accommodation in New York. Every. Single. Night. During the 2015 – 2016 school year I read that the number was almost 100,000, 1 in 7 children within the school system. In Ireland, the corresponding figure went over 3,000 in August. A terrible and shameful statistic. But it should be solvable. It has to be solvable!

If Ireland was innovating solutions to major societal challenges, like child homelessness, that was proven to work at our scale then we could scale them to solve similar challenges at a larger scale across the globe. Become a global hub for social innovation?

And we are actually pretty good at this. We have become a hub for the tech sector, pharma, aviation and even our horse breeding is world renowned. We are excellent at marketing our agri-food produce around the globe. Why shouldn’t the next sector be the nonprofit sector? We have a highly educated, English speaking workforce on the periphery of Europe with major globalised trade links. We could easily become a ‘nett exporter’ in solutions to societal challenge if we set our mind to it.

Throughout the depressed middle decades of the 20th Century, the work of our missionaries was one of the very few good news stories an impoverished and repressed people had to tell, both to ourselves and the wider world. Maybe Ireland’s missionaries of the 21st century are educated graduates with a keyboard rather than a clerical collar who value ‘purpose’ as much as ‘paying the mortgage’ and our sector needs to get better at how we can make that career choice an attractive one to them. Maybe then our international tagline won't just be ‘The best small country in the world to do business”, and perhaps could more simply aspire to actually be "The best country in the world".