Bringing Millennials Through Our Doors

ORT America Cultivates the Next Generation of Volunteers and Philanthropists
Bringing Millennials Through Our Doors

by Naomi Reinharz

Today, many of the executives and lay leaders of several large, traditional organizations are moving on to retirement or other ventures. When these people leave, their ideas and their passions need to be replaced, if the organization is to survive. More and more, organizations are looking to groom millennials, i.e. young adults ages 21-45, to take on leadership roles and preserve organizations for the foreseeable future. The question lies in how to attract, engage, and retain these millennials at the organizations that their parents and grandparents founded and ran for decades. The answer lies in delivering what they need for meaningful communal engagement that benefits the organization’s mission.

To get millennials in the door, we must first understand this cohort and then develop outreach based on that understanding. To involve young adults today, an organization must be active on digital and social media. And while young adults are tied to technology, they also want to be cultivated face to face. They yearn to interact with peers and create new networks, volunteer on the ground getting their hands dirty, and feel the direct impact of their involvement. They might prefer a flat organizational structure rather than the hierarchical structure that their ancestors used. They want to be involved in leadership roles and organizational decision-making, immediately.

At ORT America, once a Next Gener shows interest in our mission and the willingness to volunteer, we get them involved and give them a role. We encourage them to create a program, recruit new members, and come up with marketing strategies. We are opening up our veteran governance structures to include Next Geners on our boards and committees. We are building a leadership development program wherein the veterans and Next Geners mentor and learn from each other on a range of professional and lay leadership issues. Our Next Geners are leading ORT’s ongoing and special projects, such as annual conferences and international program missions. Their voices are sought and heard and are given equal weight to those of the veterans.

My millennial peers and I are living in interesting times: on the one hand, we don’t face the same urgent crises that our parents and grandparents encountered. Iran, North Korea, and other modern global threats do not elicit the same unifying, rallying cry from our generation as the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, or the Soviet Jewry movement once did. When it comes to Israel and the Jewish People, millennials on the whole are not taking part in the global conversation with the same sense of urgency and existential fear as our predecessors did.

International and impactful organizations like ORT have a role to play in combating complacency and bringing young people into the fold. Operating in more than 50 countries, ORT aims to show my peers that we need them to be part of the global conversation. We need their voices and their leadership – both now and in the future – to make a difference in the world. ORT is unique in that although we are a large, 130+ years old organization, we are nimble and evolving, yet our mission continues to remain relevant. Our education-focused mission resonates with my peers in a very global way: ORT teaches both Jews and non-Jews around the world, from the U.S. to Haiti and Israel to Bulgaria. I have found that my peers are intrigued by our overseas projects and eager to visit them on our missions. At the same time, they take pride in volunteering locally, at both ORT schools as well as public schools around the U.S. Through our annual ORT My School Day program, Next Geners mentor the students on their educational and professional paths, or participate in much-needed school beautification and cleanup projects. While most ORT Next Geners benefited from a first-world, cutting-edge education, they see the importance in giving back to those with lesser access to quality education. And for the Next Geners who attended an ORT school themselves, whether in Argentina, Israel, Russia, or New York City, ORT My School gives perfect meaning to the phrase “paying it forward.”

But while we may not feel a sense of urgency on the political stage, millennials are experiencing financial uncertainty: this is the first time in American history in which we are less secure economically than our parents were. The number of wealthy young patrons has diminished. The middle class is shrinking while the income gap is growing. ORT’s programs aim to address this crisis: we view our global network of schools – which educates people against all odds and obstacles – as one of the best answers to global poverty and income inequality. Our school programs narrow the gap in income inequality around the world through educational programming designed specifically for disadvantaged youth. In 50+ countries, the cutting-edge educational skills acquired at ORT schools, colleges, and international programs enable over 300,000 students annually to learn invaluable skills, attain successful careers, become community leaders, and, most importantly, live independently.

After millennials enter our doors, we cannot take their involvement for granted. ORT America Next Gen must have a quick and positive emotional impact on one level, and a strong, personal, value-added bond on the other. In other words, we must offer a clear path for meaningful involvement.

The simple answer is the personal engagement that we provide. We take them to lunch. We learn about their professional and personal lives. We ask about their hobbies. We get to know their peers and find out what makes them tick. We seek out their expertise and new ideas. We aim to figure out what they are looking for to feel fulfilled as volunteers, philanthropists, and human beings. The relationships we build benefit not only them as young adults, but us as professionals.

At ORT, Next Gen is not just a new trend. It is part of the everyday conversation about programs, marketing, fundraising, and strategic initiatives. Every region around the country is talking about Next Gen and building their Next Gen vision, leadership base, and programming. We are subsuming Next Gen as part and parcel of the entire organization, not simply as a separate entity. And, in all respects, our Next Geners are giving us more than they are taking.

In my role at ORT America as National Director of Next Generation, I have been impressed with the new ideas and energy that my peers have been bringing to the table. They want to do something of value for not only the Jewish community but the non-Jewish community as well. As professionals, we are always best served by listening to and learning from them, rather than trying to persuade them to accept the way things have always been done.

Each day when I go to work, I ask myself: are we doing everything we can to appeal to millennials and engage them as happy members and volunteers? Probably not. Organizational and generational transformations take time, patience, nuance, flexibility, diplomacy, and a willingness to make serious change. That’s a long list. Millennial involvement requires hard work by lay leaders and staff. It requires some risks and some compromise. At ORT, we’ve begun our journey and welcome you to join us as we continue to move forward.

The goal, of course, is synergy and mutual bliss. Our end goal is both the continuity of leadership for our organization and millennials’ meaningful communal engagement on behalf of our mission. At ORT, we hope that all of our commitment and hard work motivates our current cohort of “Next Geners” to stick around. And, as they get older and move on (as people tend to do), that the next “next generation” comes along to accept the baton.

Naomi Reinharz is National Director of Next Generation at ORT America. Contact her at nreinharz@ortamerica.org or 212-547-9142.