Bold Leaders Who Defy Millennial Stereotypes

The Chronicle of Philanthropy invited me to write an opinion piece for their issue recognizing 40 nonprofit leaders under 40 years old. I decided to use the platform to argue about how stereotypes about Millennials are often only about the most privileged Millennials, and to recognize that this list is better than that stereotype.


Nonprofits and philanthropies have been anxiously trying to engage their talent. In the news media and elsewhere, the group has been described as entitled, altruistic, demanding, entrepreneurial, self-centered, and tech-savvy. Millennials are reported to be searching for balance in their lives, meaning in their careers, and recognition that they are special. (Everyone gets a trophy.)

I’ve heard many leaders either dismiss or romanticize millennials for those various qualities. Neither attitude is exactly right.

Just as many of us over 40 challenged systems and created new programs and organizations when younger, we should encourage this new generation of leaders to be bold, fearless, and disruptive, even when they annoy us. Nonprofits also need to do a better job of recruiting and retaining millennials and advancing their talent. We must develop more innovative cultures, invest in talent management and leadership development, commit to practicing racial equity to reflect our communities, and provide fair compensation.

But we should also understand this generation beyond the hype.

I find it troubling that the millennial brand has largely been constructed with regard to the most privileged members of that generation. We must recognize, for example, that 70 percent of millennials do not graduate from college. Instead of choosing whether to take a gap year, that segment is trying to avoid living gap lives.

At my former organization, Public Allies, I worked with hundreds of millennial leaders, most of them people of color and from less-privileged backgrounds. I found that young people like these often reject the label and defy the stereotypes. They are bold but not egocentric. They are better at asking the right questions than promoting their own answers. They want to disrupt the current order but also learn from those who came before them. They regularly use technology but don’t mistake “likes” for relationships and commitment. They have not emulated Columbus by “discovering,” “founding,” or “innovating” work that has been done by others for decades. Though not perfect or void of all millennial stereotypes, they possess a blend of boldness and humility that’s refreshing.

I was encouraged that The Chronicle’s 40 Under 40 list holds up leaders with this same special blend rather than those who perpetuate millennial hype.

Many people have been surprised to learn that the three founders of #BlackLivesMatter are women, two of them lesbians. Before their hashtag and advocacy on criminal-justice reform, Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi were impressive organizers focused on issues of economic justice, domestic workers, and immigration. Their work has gone viral online but is rooted in work in the streets. They reject patriarchal, top-down notions of leadership for their movement, embracing an inclusive, decentralized approach rooted in the true history of justice movements.

Vu Le focuses on building leadership among people of color and building the capacity of organizations led by people of color. His influential “Nonprofit With Balls” blog speaks truth to power and calls out the elephants in the rooms of mainstream nonprofits and philanthropy, while also expressing a vulnerability and curiosity that has made him a trusted colleague and collaborator of many groups in Seattle.

Monisha Kapila founded ProInspire to strengthen the talent pipeline at nonprofits. With an M.B.A. from Harvard and an impressive résumé, Ms. Kapila is committed to racial equity as essential for effective nonprofit performance. And unlike millennials who think they know it all, she hired as her No. 2 a leader from the baby-boomer generation with extensive leadership experience. Although Ms. Kapila’s program is small, she has become a player in the field because she is a great collaborator and an advocate for her cause, not just her organization.

Fagan Harris, a former Rhodes Scholar, was one of the leaders of an Aspen Institute study on engaging top talent for nonprofits. He listened to people in the field who questioned traditional definitions of “top talent,” visited programs that challenged his early assumptions, and then moved to his hometown of Baltimore to put in place what he learned by both bringing new talent to the sector and redefining talent.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins argued that leaders who build the most successful, sustainable companies are professionally bold and personally humble.

We are fortunate that many leaders coming of age in increasingly diverse generations practice that approach every day. They are not the stereotype others represent. They don’t feel entitled to lead; they are grateful for the opportunity to lead and to partner with other leaders. It is good we celebrate them.

Published January 5, 2016. Reprinted with permission from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.