Older nonprofit workers fear discrimination from employers
When Mildred Farrell left her job as the director of a Boston arts group, it never occurred to her that she
would have trouble finding another position. After decades of managing arts and cultural organizations, she thought she would have her pick of opportunities.
But two years later, after sending out hundreds of cover letters and résumés, and landing only a handful of interviews in response -- and only part-time work -- Ms. Farrell says that she has learned a hard lesson about the nonprofit job market: In these tough economic times, it is challenging for people older than 50 to find new jobs.
"I never gave a thought to my age before I started looking for work," says Ms. Farrell, who gives her age as "fiftysomething." "Now I'm conscious of my age for the first time in my life."
The interviews she has landed, she says, follow a pattern. She arrives for the interview to discover that the people evaluating her are decades younger than she is, setting up a strange dynamic from the start. She refers to a phenomenon that she describes as "the Starbucks factor": "I walked in and there was a group of people in their 20s, and they were all sitting around with their Starbucks coffee. I could tell immediately from the vibe and the chemistry that I wasn't going to get the job."
Increasingly frustrated by her inability to find full-time work, she has even tapped into her extensive network of nonprofit contacts to find out what the competition has that she does not. "They're younger than me," she says. "That's all it is."
Increase in Complaints
Ms. Farrell is far from alone in her belief that her age has kept her from finding nonprofit work.
Employers of all kinds have faced increasing criticism from job applicants they did not hire. From 1998 to 2003, the number of age-related discrimination cases filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that administers the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, jumped more than 26 percent, from 15,191 to 19,124. The claimants include people who believe that they were fired, or were not hired in the first place, because of their age.
Those numbers are likely to increase fast, say employment experts, as Americans remain in the work force longer, and apply for new positions at an increasingly advanced age.
"We're going to see a growing number of older workers who are seeking jobs in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors because they don't have the funds to retire," says Joan Cirillo, executive director of Operation ABLE (Ability Based on Long Experience), a nonprofit organization in Boston that provides job training and counseling for workers 45 and older. (Ms. Farrell began a part-time job there as a development associate in November.) Some of the group's clients, Ms. Cirillo says, are in their 70s.
In recent years, she says, her organization has seen an increased demand for its services, due largely to a struggling economy. Today, she notes, even with an improving job market, older job seekers continue to face challenges in their search for work. "In a good economy," she says, "it takes a mature worker almost six months to find a job."
But even as workers continue to complain that they have been turned down for nonprofit jobs, winning an age-discrimination claim remains difficult. Of the people who sue, only one in four end up winning their case, says Howard Eglit, author of Elders on Trial: Age and Ageism in the American Legal System (University Press of Florida, 2004, $49.95). "It may be that the good cases settle, but the fact is that unless you have a great piece of evidence, your claim isn't going to go anywhere," says Mr. Eglit.
Take the case of Chris DeGraff, who was 50 when he started looking for top management positions at organizations that serve young people. Several times, notes Mr. DeGraff, he ended up among the finalists for a position -- and had a strong feeling that he was about to be offered the job -- only to be turned down in favor of a younger, less experienced applicant.
Today, Mr. DeGraff has a position that he loves: He is director of stewardship at the Church of the Open Door, in Maple Grove, Minn. But he is also fairly certain that his age cost him those other jobs.
"As you progress through a career, even in the nonprofit world, you get paid more," he says. "If you're younger and you're willing to take less money, that puts pressure on people who have been in the field longer."
The issue of age and pay levels is tricky, but hiring the cheaper worker is most likely not a case of discrimination, say legal experts.
Mr. Eglit notes that, until 1993, it was illegal for employers to discriminate not just on the basis of a person's age, but also on any characteristics that are associated with age, such as the higher salaries people make as they gain more experience. But with its decision in Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins, says Mr. Eglit, the U.S. Supreme Court said such related characteristics were not relevant. That has made it far easier for employers to avoid lawsuits, he says.
"Now if a 50-year-old isn't hired because he makes too much money, it's not his age that's keeping him from getting the job. It's the fact that he makes too much money," he says. "It's common for employers to go with the younger person. It's also legal now."
As for Ms. Farrell's suspicion that she was rejected by one organization because she did not fit into its youthful Starbucks culture, she may have been right, says Robert S. Turk, an employment lawyer in Miami who has represented nonprofit clients. But unless her interviewers specifically mentioned age, failure to hire someone on the grounds that they don't fit into an organization's culture isn't a crime.
"The question is, 'Did the employer intentionally discriminate?'" he says. "In this case, a judge might say that it's an unfortunate situation, but not one that demonstrates intent."
Advice for Job Seekers
Lawyers, recruiters, and nonprofit veterans offer the following tips to help older job applicants protect themselves from age discrimination as they hunt for employment:
Know the law. While civil-rights specialists say the Hazen case was a setback for older workers, it is still possible to successfully sue over age discrimination.
The employers who selected Mr. DeGraff's younger and presumably lower-paid competitors didn't violate the law, says Todd Shinaman, an employment lawyer in Rochester, N.Y., whose clients include nonprofit organizations. But had the prospective bosses referred to Mr. DeGraff's age in the course of an interview, even in an indirect way, he might have had grounds for an age-related complaint.
"Age can't be considered or taken into account either directly or indirectly during the hiring process," says Mr. Shinaman. If a nonprofit official made a comment, no matter how innocently intended, that gives the impression that the interviewer is thinking about the age of the applicant, it could be considered an indirect display of bias, he says.
For example, says Mr. Shinaman, "saying to someone that they've 'been around a long time,' or making a reference to 'the next stage of their life.' Statements like this indicate that you're looking at the applicant as someone who is old."
Gauge the situation -- and adjust expectations accordingly. As an adviser to charities for the past 16 years, Renata Rafferty says she see nothing inherently "ageist" about the nonprofit world.
"The vast majority of charities in the U.S. are small, and every single one of them would love to have a seasoned -- which means older -- executive," says Ms. Rafferty, whose office is in Indian Wells, Calif.
But with budgets tight and funds limited, dollars trump experience every time, she says: "Your qualifications, experience, and competency are irrelevant. It all comes down to dollars."
For older applicants, such a dynamic can mean competing against younger, "hungrier" candidates, who are willing to forego high salaries and generous benefits in order to prove themselves. Ms. Rafferty insists, however, that older workers can make employers' emphasis on the bottom line work in their favor. The key, she says, is to focus on value.
"If you're up against a younger, less qualified candidate, you have to try to convince the hiring committee that you're worth the extra $20,000," she says. "Are you experienced in bringing in money? Have you worked with organizations that were innovative in their approach to raising money? Hiring decisions are made on the basis of dollars. It's as simple as that."
Seek out "mature" positions. In a culture that worships youth, older workers can be forgiven for feeling as if there's no place for them, even at nonprofit groups. But there are still some positions for which the maturity and confidence that come with age are a distinct advantage, says Lois Lindauer, a recruiter in Boston who serves nonprofit clients.
"For development positions, particularly those involving planned giving, 'gray hair' is seen as really desirable," she says. "I've been asked to look for people with gray hair, meaning an older person who feels comfortable talking to older people about bequests."
Where older workers may have a disadvantage during the hiring process is with what Ms. Lindauer terms "the burnout syndrome": the fading of enthusiasm that may result from many years of work experience. "Some older people will tell you, 'Well, I did this, I did that.' They don't give any detail," she says. "It no longer excites them to talk about their work."
To compete with younger, more energetic candidates, she says, older applicants must try to recall the same enthusiasm that originally brought them to nonprofit work. "I just interviewed an older person for a management job," she says. "He had good eye contact, a lot of energy." So did he get the job? "You bet," she says. "He convinced me that he was absolutely the appropriate person to hire."
Demonstrate flexibility. It's often said these days that "50 is the new 30," but that shift in cultural perspective may be difficult to discern in the hiring process, where older workers still confront rigid stereotypes. "Employers often say that people of a certain age aren't flexible, that they can't do certain jobs and can't learn new skills," says Ms. Cirillo of Operation ABLE. While she dismisses such perceptions, she notes that they also keep many older job applicants from getting hired.
Ms. Cirillo encourages the older workers who come to her organization for tips and training to deploy what she terms "stereotype busters" during job interviews. "Include examples of how you've learned new skills -- a new software program, for example," she says. "How have you been able to switch gears and do something different? That indicates that you're flexible. Let them know how physically active you are: 'I just finished painting the house,' or 'I went for a run.' These are all ways of telling the interviewer, 'Don't group me with everyone else.'"
Stay optimistic despite setbacks. Since Ms. Farrell began looking for fund-raising jobs and other nonprofit management positions two years ago, she has developed a new expertise: age discrimination. These days, when she is not firing off cover letters or reworking her résumé, Ms. Farrell is thinking about the book she hopes to write, a critical look at the nonprofit world in which she has spent most of her adult life.
"One of the mistakes being made by nonprofits is that they haven't moved forward with creative ways to retain mature workers and attract more," she says.
But until she takes up her pen, she remains cautiously optimistic, applying for positions that sound interesting, and taking consulting jobs when they are offered. "It's very hard not to give up hope," she concedes. "Enough time goes by and you begin to lose sight of your own strength and skills."