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College Grads Make Strides in Nonprofit World

'Post-millennials' take social service seriously.

January 11, 2012

In 2008, after his sophomore year at New York University, Elie Lowenfeld went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as an AmeriCorps volunteer to help rebuild after major flooding.

While volunteering with hundreds of people from around the country, he was surprised that all the relief groups were Christian. Soon after—with the guidance of NYU's Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life—Lowenfeld started a nonprofit called the Jewish Disaster Response Corp., which organizes Jewish volunteers to help out in disaster areas across the country.

"After my first trip to Iowa, it became clear that I had to keep doing more," said Lowenfeld, whose organization's annual budget has grown to $187,000 from $10,000 in three years. "It changed my life."

He's one of a growing number of idealistic students who are taking it upon themselves to fix problems they see in society and are starting their own nonprofits to do it. Their colleges are doing everything they can to help.

"There's been an incredible shift in this generation," said Clifford Schorer, a professor at Columbia Business School. "Before, students wanted to work for McKinsey. Then everyone thought they had the 100 millionth idea for the Internet. Now kids have gone through down times and are thinking they want to be in control of their life and do something good for society."

A study by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement shows that between 80 percent and 85 percent of incoming college freshmen have community-service experience prior to starting their higher education. That's up from 66 percent in 1989. Today's teens also plan to be generous when they get older. More than 75 percent say they will give regularly to charity, versus 63 percent in 1989, according to the Girl Scout Research Institute.

"This generation feels a responsibility to make a difference," said Stan Rosenberg, a sophomore at NYU who started a charity called Trip of a Lifetime a few years ago to send low-income high-school students on teen trips. "We see people hurting with the recession and a period of war, and we are being educated at school about social impact."

Indeed, many colleges now expect community-service experience from their applicants. NYU requires its business students to take a public-policy class where high-profile social activists like Newark Mayor Cory Booker speak. Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn established a nonprofit management program two years ago in which students learn how to start their own organizations. And both Columbia and NYU have helped a number of budding social entrepreneurs get their charities off the ground.

The flood of "postmillennials" creating their own nonprofits stems from two trends, experts say: a generational desire to do something meaningful and the quest for individualism.

"This generation doesn't want to participate in these larger nonprofits that already exist," said Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me. "They don't want to be another cog in the wheel."

But some observers question the value of these ventures, seeing them more as drives for personal importance. With an estimated 25,000 New York nonprofits already fighting for donations, the social-services sector might be better served if these graduates took their talents to existing groups.

The budding social entrepreneurs say their nonprofits tackle unique problems, and that many are run more efficiently than the established organizations.

Lowenfeld's JDRC, for example, sends volunteers only to disasters in the United States, while most other Jewish volunteer groups focus on trouble spots overseas.

Other new efforts are more personal in nature. NYU junior Delia Mandia started Night Night Monster last year during a hospital stay. The student, on sick leave, began sewing handmade dolls that looked like friendly monsters to pass the time. Nurses began requesting them for their pediatric patients. Now Mandia is getting requests from hospitals and orphanages around the world for the dolls—which she says are meant to keep nightmares away. A team of fellow students helped make the 800 dolls she donated last year. The whole operation is run with just a website and a Twitter account.

"A lot of the large, well-known nonprofits are incredibly inefficient, and a lot of the small nonprofits are very efficient," said Columbia professor Schorer. "These students are actually developing the future of the nonprofit world."

For some groups, setting a defined goal and then shutting down is a viable strategy. Out2Play, an organization developed by Andrea Wenner while she was a Columbia M.B.A. student, plans to close this summer after achieving its goal of building 176 public-school playgrounds.

Filed by Miriam Kreinin Souccar of Crain's New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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