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How Agencies Can Tap a Rising Generation’s Impulse to Do Good

The public sector’s need for young, motivated talent has never been more pressing.

The federal workforce is confronting an issue that has been studied for years: the imminent retirement of many of its most skilled and qualified employees, and the need to replace them with young talent. Organizations such as the Partnership for Public Service have offered specific recommendations to agencies, some of whom stand to lose nearly half of their senior leadership in the coming years. Meanwhile, the newly formed Commission for Military, National and Community Service is soliciting input about how to encourage young people to consider public service careers.

Many of tomorrow’s public servants can be found in the nation’s nonprofit organizations and congregations, which provide needed services to neighborhoods and communities. Each year, about 60 million adults in America, including about 6 million high school and college students, volunteer their time to work with community organizations. However, the recent report,”Good Intentions, Gap in Action,” published by the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, contains good news and bad news about the future of the volunteer workforce.

The good news is that young people entering college are more likely than they ever have been to express strong interest in helping others in difficulty and becoming community leaders. The bad news is that the volunteer rate for students—high school and college—has hardly budged in the past 10 years. As a result, we run the risk of failing to capitalize on a moment when the “do good” intentions of young people are at a 51-year peak, at a time when the public sector’s need for young, motivated talent has never been more pressing.

For young people, volunteering with an organization can ignite the passion for doing good that eventually leads them to seek careers in public service. Social institutions that introduce youth to volunteering, including family, school and religious institutions, can build and strengthen the desire to serve even among young children. For high school and college students, volunteering gives them opportunities to expand their horizons. Through volunteering, young people can learn how to form connections with others in the community and build intergenerational social networks that can support them through their transition to adulthood. More importantly, volunteer work teaches young people the importance of serving others and working toward common goals that form the foundation of our society.

Research evidence shows that today’s college students enter school with historic levels of interest in helping others. The 2016 version of the Higher Education Research Institute’s (HERI) American Freshman study, which has been published annually since 1966, revealed an all-time high in the percentage of first-year college students who said “helping others who are in difficulty” was a “very important” or “essential” personal objective. The HERI study also shows that the desire to become a community leader was also at an all-time high for entering college students; support for both questions has increased sharply over the last 10 years.

Unfortunately, the Do Good Institute’s research shows evidence of a “do good gap” among entering college students: high school and college student volunteer rate has remained unchanged during the last decade even though record numbers of entering students feel that service to others is a high priority.

Regular volunteering provides young people an on-ramp to lifelong community engagement, and helps prepare them for leading roles in the volunteer workforce—and also the public service workforce—of tomorrow. We all know the public sector has a particular need for students with these skills and motivations, given that the long-awaited “tsunami” of Baby Boomer retirements is fast approaching. Although the Millennial generation has been identified as the successors to the Boomers, the “post-Millennial” generation—the young people in high school and college now—hold the key to the future for both the public and social sectors.

Students across college campuses, regardless of field of study, are interested in and could benefit from more opportunities that equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to innovate and make a social impact on and off campus. At the University of Maryland, for example, we launched a year-long prize competition program called the Do Good Challenge in 2012. This program gets thousands of students in every college on campus involved in creating high-impact projects and ventures that tap their individual passion. Students advance their projects and ventures through rigorous academic courses as well as coaching and seed funds provided outside their classroom experiences. The results have been encouraging; two recent challenge alums, for example, were named to the Forbes List of 30 Top Social Entrepreneurs Under 30.  

Government entities, colleges, high schools, nonprofits, and others need to invest and provide more quality, hands-on experiences inside and outside the classroom to tap this generation’s passion for doing good. We must seize the opportunity to keep young people interested in service as they reach adulthood, and expect educational and other organizations to give young people quality opportunities to make an impact today. Otherwise, interest without the right opportunities will result in inaction and a lost opportunity to turn this generation’s enthusiasm for service into a lifetime pursuit.

Robert Grimm is the Levenson Family Chair in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership and Director of the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. Nathan Dietz is an associate research scholar at the Do Good Institute.

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