By: Michelle Shumate

I teach a class entitled Nonprofit Communication Management to a group of Northwestern undergraduates each year. What makes this class unique, and one of the highlights of my regular teaching year, is that I bring nonprofit clients into the classroom. The students’ final projects focus on real issues that nonprofit organizations are facing.

This year, the clients were the United Way of Lake County with 2 projects, Evanston Cradle to Career, and the United Palatine Network. The last two groups are neighborhood networks of the United Way of Metro Chicago. The projects included an environmental scan for a new program, an analysis of internal stakeholder communication and recommendations, market research to develop community personas, and research and analysis to address communication recommendations targeting Millennials.

The projects were fabulous. Not just because the students delivered a quality project for their clients (they did). Project-based learning is a great way to learn about the sector. When most of the students started the class, they had very limited experiences working with nonprofit organizations. Many had never had a close relationship with a nonprofit. However, by the end, they were exchanging contact information and collecting business cards from clients.

The Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact produces high quality research. We are often consulted by professional associations and thought leaders. However, we are also a university research lab. This means that I not only research the sector and how to develop social impact, I also train next sector leaders in the classroom. Moreover, our research is run by students learning new skills and getting exposure to the sector. I wouldn’t do this work any other way. It’s through the experiences of the students and the so called “naïve” questions that they ask, that we are pushed to think harder, to question our assumptions, and to make our research designs more elegant.

And the sector needs high quality next generation leaders. With the retirement of baby boomer leaders from the sector ( and the growth of the nonprofit sector in comparison to the rest of the economy, the need for the next generation leaders has never been so critical. When I talk to nonprofit leaders, they are often puzzled by managing their millennial or younger workers. Since I work with so many of these bright, next generation leaders, here’s a few things that I know to be true.

  1. These next generation leaders are more savvy and independent than they are given credit for. When I watched my students present their work to clients, I was blown away. I knew that they were doing good work, but I wasn’t in on all their decisions. They had the run of the show. I was simply their support. And by letting go, providing multiple check-ins, and then stepping back, the results were better than if I held the reigns too tightly.
  2. I am often surprised that students like to sit in my office or meet with me to just talk. They want to be seen as a person, not just a student. And they surprise me at the degree they want to know me – despite our 20 year-gap in age.
  3. The biggest challenge that I face working with younger students is convincing them that its ok to risk and fail. This is mission critical in research where you are often surprised by your results. I probably answer the question — “is it okay …”? — 3 times a day.

I am invested in the next generation of nonprofit leaders. They are tough, resilient, and smart. Just watch them!