By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors
Ronan Johnson was 7 years old when he did his first volunteer work. As an Indian Guide in Southern California, his troop collected cans of food and worked at a homeless shelter. Although he was giving his time, he didn’t make the connection that this was philanthropy or volunteering.
“That was just part of being a Cub Scout. We probably got a badge. It was something you were supposed to do at that age,” said Johnson, the now 35-year-old associate in the Indianapolis office of the law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister.
Since moving here after law school, Johnson now gives his time to multiple organizations in the city.
“There are more opportunities here in Indy than in other cities I’ve been in,” Johnson said. “Individuals are willing to give up so much of their time, especially to organizations that they care about and in many cases, they may not have a direct connection.”
Although at the upper end of the millennial generation, which in the U.S. is approximately 80 million people, Johnson shares many of its characteristics. The 2013 Millennial Impact Research Report, financed by the Washington, D.C.-based Case Foundation, indicated that 72 percent of his generation are eager to volunteer for a nonprofit organization, and a little over 50 percent would like to give monthly to a charitable organization.
Despite a willing talent pool, nonprofits have struggled to engage millennials in meaningful ways. Johnson, however, is the exception. Currently, he serves on the Meals on Wheels board, and is chair of the executive board of the Young Lawyers Division of the Indianapolis Bar Association. He is also active in the Penrod Society, the Association for Corporate Growth and completed the United Way's Emerging Leaders program.
According to studies by Indianapolis-based Achieve, millennials want to engage with causes to help people, not institutions. They prefer to get to know an organization before committing to its cause and consider all their assets -- time and money -- as having equal value.
Johnson’s Meals on Wheels volunteer activity reflects this.
“What got me involved initially was someone asking me. But what’s kept me involved is the mission and everything else. It was a cause that I strongly believed in and that I could get behind. It’s something, regardless of board involvement or not, I would have been involved with as a volunteer because we’re providing meals, nutritious meals to the homebound,” he said.
Before joining Meals on Wheels, Johnson invested time in United Way’s yearlong leadership program.
“What I actually got to understand was the role that I was supposed to serve,” he said. “I was not just there to be the executive director’s buddy and rubber stamp whatever the executive director was doing.”
If nonprofits are going to attract and keep volunteers from Johnson’s generation, which will be 50 percent of the workforce by 2020, they must find new recruiting approaches.
In “The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer,” recruiters are encouraged to start with a process similar to dating and introduce individuals to an organization without a commitment. The authors suggest an invitation to help assess a specific problem or fix a software issue can be better starting places than asking for an ongoing volunteer commitment.
Given what Johnson understands about his generation, he uses some of these skills to attract other volunteers. One of those is the annual Get on Board event. For the past several years, he’s volunteered at the event and has been surprised that the audience is intergenerational, and sees it as an introduction to nonprofits. This year more than 650 people attended the annual event.
“A lot of them are there because they’ve been told that they need to get involved in the community. Personally I don’t think that’s the strongest reason to want to be involved. If it ends up causing them to do great things, all the better. Get on Board is a great way to see what kind of options are out there,” said Johnson.
“It gets back to something I mentioned earlier where I think that people don’t really know how it is they want to get involved and what they want to do. And I think putting people in front of the organization and giving them an experience with them first hand is kind of like putting training wheels on it where it makes that first step easier,” said Johnson.
To promote the event, his committee reached out to law firms to distribute information, not only to associates but to partners as well.
Connecting millennials to organizations is exactly what he has tackled this year as chair of the Young Lawyers Division of the Indianapolis Bar Association. During his tenure, the group will offer four events designed to introduce nonprofits to millennials.
Johnson often hears people talk about the idea of volunteering, but when he asks what they are doing, their response is, “I’m looking for the right opportunity.”
“It’s a really daunting first step. It can be a little bit intimating for a lot of people. Because there are so many options out there. They’re not really sure what they want to do and they are paralyzed by it,” he said.
What advice would he give his generation?
“I think it’s really amazing how much I grew and accomplished whenever I have been behind a shared mission. Even when you don’t have a ton of money, moving forward to accomplish those goals or whatever the goal is that you set forth, I think it’s pretty amazing.”