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Seeking the Millennial donor: How the largest generation gives back

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.” While my father could have said this just last week about today’s Millennial generation, that statement is 2,300 years old, spoken by the Greek poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer.

It’s probably safe to say that the sentiment—distrust of the generation just reaching adulthood, and anxiety over their perceived shortcomings—is timeless. That makes it tricky to separate the truth about the qualities Millennials actually possess from the commentary of modern-day Hesiods, who have written much—often negative, frequently reactionary, and sometime paradoxical—about what makes Millennials a “unique” generation.

As a member of the tribe, I know enough to say that the most diverse generation in American history does not lend itself to easy classification. As in most things, it’s best to check the research to find out what this generation looks like, and what we can do to activate their potential as donors. For that, I’ve turned to sources including Blackbaud’s The Next Generation of American Giving, the 2015 Millennial Impact Report from Achieve, Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and others.

What the Heck's a Millennial, Anyway?

Setting generational boundaries isn’t an exact science, but Millennials are generally defined as those born between 1980 and 2000, give or take a few years. That’s a wider range of years than any other generation, covering about a third of the US population. As of now, however, Millennials are underrepresented in the workforce, the result of poor timing—finishing high school and college during the worst of the recession—and the natural trajectory followed by an entry-level workforce.

Though Millennials are generally enthusiastic about purposeful work and giving back, their current position is unlikely to produce large contributions. Fortunately, a recovering economy and a wave of retiring Boomers will change that, setting up Millennials to find more stable work and, by 2020, take over 50 percent of the US workforce.

Because Millennials are the most diverse generation America has seen, it is difficult to pin down their personal qualities without compressing their multi-dimensionality—but let’s give it a shot anyway. We can say that they’re digital natives, meaning that communication technology is not just important to them, but second-nature. Perhaps as a result of their constant connectivity, they possess a general sense of shared purpose and an affinity for collaboration, often reflected in a desire (and ability) to merge work-life and home-life (as opposed to previous generations’ efforts to “balance” work- and home-life).

A Savvy Set of Cause Champions

They want to ensure bang for their buck, which means demonstrable outcomes—not just outputs.

Because Millennials are natural researchers, born in the information age, they are practical about who they support: They want to ensure bang for their buck, which means demonstrable outcomes—not just outputs. They also tend to prioritize causes over organizations, and focused projects over ongoing work.

Though it’s possible to distract some with slick branding (and it certainly doesn’t hurt), this generation has evolved a sixth sense for differentiating the genuine article from fluff, or content for content’s sake. They seek altruism and authenticity, and they stick around when they’ve found it. In fact, once a Millennial finds three to five organizations addressing their cause, they tend to stand by those organizations when donating, volunteering, and sharing with peers.

That sharing can be especially effective: If not necessarily tech-savvy, Millennials are incredibly adept with social media, giving your messaging unprecedented potential to go viral. Conversely, social media faux pas can be quite damaging. Because everything lives forever on the internet (think of a bad review on Yelp), social media strategies can become a valuable asset.

Think You Can't Even? Yes You Can.

Whether they represent the universal symptoms of youth or a truly unique set of qualities, it is possible to reach Millennials, and make lifetime supporters out of them, by using old techniques and new technology. Three suggestions:

Make your impact the star. Millennials don’t want to see the intermediary—that is, you—they want to connect with the beneficiary. You need to be able to quantify the impact of your programs and put a face to the effects. Photos are a great way to do that—easy if you work with cute animals, less so if you can’t disclose your clients’ identities. In that case, put together an infographic that shows, explicitly, the connection between dollars donated and someone in need. Always tell a story: Millennials, just like everyone else, respond to anecdotal evidence of your impact as well as the empirical record. Use them both for maximum effect.

Keep appeals approachable. Millennials have an outsized desire to contribute, but limited buying power. To make giving easy, you’ll need to offer more than an online giving function and a website that can be read on a smartphone. (Though you will need both of those!) You’ll also need options that make it easy to contribute. For example, agreeing to a monthly give of $5 is much easier than coming up with $60 all at once.

Find a way to incentivize giving, and you can spark a flurry of competitive giving.

Offer instant rewards. Perhaps the Achilles’ heel of Millennial giving is gamification. Find a way to incentivize giving—making donations more valuable (with, say, matching funds) or more urgent (with, say, a time-based challenge)—and you can spark a flurry of competitive giving. During Georgia Gives Day “Power Hours,” for instance, organizations compete for bonus funds by raising the most money or the highest donor count in 60 minutes. These contests create spikes in giving and awareness that start with dedicated supporters, and snowball through their online networks.

Tommy Pearce is a consultant with GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group.
 

Photo Credit: Erika Botfeld

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