Friday, December 29, 2006

The Dilemma of the Young Professional

As a young professional--again using the definition of "under age 35"--I have found that I, and others like me, are either seen as "saviors" or "sinners" in non-profits, particularly in the museum world.

Many museum directors and boards recognize that the traditional museum model doesn't hold the public's attention in the same ways it did even 10 years ago. They put out the call for fresh ideas and create new technology-related positions within education and marketing departments. They hire a GenX'ish professional for these positions because it is this generation which is able to translate older, traditional themes into more user-friendly concepts. Unfortunately, though, the transition from paper to product is not always met so warmly.

In her paper entitled The Gap: Young Nonprofit Professionals Needed to Fill Executive Transitions in the Third Sector, Emily Davis points specifically to the "condescension and untrustworthy attitudes from older colleagues and people in leadership roles within organizations." (**)

My question is this:

How can we as young professionals allay the fears and misgivings held by our older counterparts, thus allowing ourselves to be more successful, without simultaneously sacrificing the attributes which make us different from those same counterparts?

Have you had any personal success in breaking down the barriers? Any horror stories from which we might learn something?

**I highly recommend the paper by Emily Davis referenced above. I read it and finally realized that I'm not alone. You can download it from the Greater Milwaukee Chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network at


LD/Brownie said...

I, too, am a young museum professional and can definitely relate to what you said, although I sure don't have any answers. I have the additional curse of having moved into a very staid, conservative community. Ask someone if they're from the area, and they will tell you, with an absolutely straight face, no, they're from the next town over.

It's hard for us because we tend to take our jobs more personally than those in the for-profit sector. I've been at my job for a year and a half, and I like to think that I've earned the respect and admiration of some of my board members and volunteers. Others, though, I know are simply a lost cause.One thing that was helpful to me, in a backhanded way, was that the previous curator was so frustrated that she simply cleared off, and left most of her notes on different things that happened in my office. So I had a pretty good idea of who my supporters would turn out to be during my first week, as I tried to clean up my office enough that I could sit down in there. I was essentially right, too.

Toby Higbie said...

I feel your pain brothers and sisters, although I am no longer "young" and have moved out of the museum/library sector. What you are describing is not simply related to technology and generation, but also reflects a the fact that museums and historical libraries are inherently conservative institutions. In my experience chronic underfunding was a big factor, creating a risk-averse climate.

My only advice is to be strategic in your projects, and keep your own best interests in mind. You have a long life ahead of you and you don't need to bust your brains out for any employer that doesn't value your work. Baby steps for the institution help make everyone more comfortable. Someday they'll be ready to walk on their own, or blog as the case may be.

Nonprofits, like social movements, tend to attract people who want to give of themselves. That's a good thing. Just don't lose yourself and your own interests in the quest to better the organization.

Good luck with this blog. It is a much-needed forum.