When Wendi Adelson talks about making the world a better place, it's not just idle conversation. At 22, the recent graduate of Brandeis University already has put in almost a decade trying to do exactly that.
Ms. Adelson's first venture into the nonprofit world was in junior high school, when she used her life savings of $200 to start a nonprofit organization that collected and distributed educational toys to children in daycare centers.
"I was volunteering in day-care centers, and it only took a little while to see that these kids didn't have very good educational tools," she says. "I thought how unfair that was, and, in my 13-year-old mind, I figured starting a nonprofit would be the best way to do something about it."
By the time she finished the project some five years later, she had raised about $18,000 in in-kind donations. She also received a full tuition scholarship to Brandeis, based on her community involvement. In college, she continued with her nonprofit activities, coordinating a Big Siblings program on campus and going to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she worked with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and with Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquival.
When she graduated this year, she took a job as a junior fellow at the nonprofit Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she continues to develop her long-term career interest in international affairs and the role of education as a means of development.
"I just really don't understand the point in feeding into a culture of constant consumption, where the point is to get a bigger car or to have more stuff to consume or collect," she says. "I think life's about how you relate to people, and what we do for each other."
Adelson is far from alone on her idealistic path. Experts in education, employment, and social work say that more and more young people are turning to careers that offer social value - either through nonprofit organizations, or through a wide variety of business options.
"Quite simply, these are people that want to make a difference," says James Austin, a professor at Harvard Business School and chair of the Initiative on Social Enterprise, a business school program that began in 1993.
"I've watched this for over 30 years at the business school, and there is absolutely an increased momentum now," he says. "There's a strong upward trend in students' interest in social sector issues, and in trying to find ways to be engaged with those. It's a really active interest in doing something about the larger sets of issues that confront society."
That trend, which observers say accelerated across the country during the 1990s, is expected to increase as the so-called "Millennial Generation," (sometimes defined as those born after 1982), comes of age and enters the job market.
According to Neil Howe, an expert in generation studies and co-author of "The Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation," this group of young people differs markedly from its "Generation X" predecessors and their highly individualized sense of self.
"One thing that's different is that millenials will want to work in something that is socially or politically important," says Mr. Howe. "But unlike the boomers, who attacked the establishment, they will do it in a way that's institutionally mainstream."
Experts say millenials are interested in fairness and have a strong sense of caring for others. In fact, according to a recent Harris Poll, 90 percent of college seniors at more than 100 colleges and universities across the US said helping others is more important than helping oneself. The poll also found that doing work that allows them to have an impact on the world is important to 97 percent of those seniors.
"It's the end of the 'me' generation," says Professor Leslie Lenkowsky, of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, somewhat jokingly. "It may not be quite that ... but there are a lot of people who are beginning to ask the question: 'Isn't there more than this?' One thing we know about affluence is that it's boring."
Across the country, some 250 colleges and universities now offer courses, and, in some cases, degree programs, for students interested in work in the nonprofit sector, which currently employs about 10 percent of the nation's workforce. Business schools, too, are increasingly responding to student interest with special programs, such as the one Harvard began eight years ago, which has grown from one course offering to five different classes - along with several student clubs that focus on both nonprofit careers and social enterprise work in a for-profit setting.
Susan Wolf Ditkoff, who received her MBA from Harvard this spring, says she was looking for a business school that emphasized the intersection of the business world and the nonprofit sector - and the ways that each could learn from the other. Earlier, she attended college at Yale, where she organized soup kitchen volunteers. Upon graduation, she became a management consultant who found herself drawn to pro bono projects. Ms. Ditkoff begins work next month as a nonprofit management consultant with the Bridgespan Group, a spin-off from the for-profit consulting group, Bain & Co.
"My interest came from being in the business world, but it was about making the biggest impact that could be made in the nonprofit sector," says Ditkoff.
"What I want to be able to do is look at nonprofits as an industry," she says, "to try to give them the same attention that for-profits have had. Things like what the right role of a nonprofit is in society, what the best way is to attract talent, how to attack some of society's most intractable problems. What's really the smartest way to make large-scale impact?"
Observers say that opportunities will abound for graduates like Ditkoff, as the nonprofit sector continues to become more attuned to entrepreneurial business practices, including strategic planning and increased accountability. In fact, unlike the 1960s, when a law degree was the ticket to making important social change, in the new millennium, a business degree may be the best tool for having a positive social impact.