Much ado about millennials: connecting with today’s most enigmatic donors

You’re probably tired of hearing the word, “millennial”… even if you’re a millennial. The media can’t get enough of this generation and how they see themselves and the world around them. If you’re a fundraiser, however, you’ll want to get to know them better—and start cultivating the strong donor relationships you’ll need in the future.

In my work as an editorial strategist, a communications consultant, and a writer for non-profits and mission-driven organizations, one question has come up more than almost any other in the last year or two. Sometimes it’s not exactly posed as a question, mind you—it’s more of a slightly bewildered conversation starter.

“So… about those Millennials.”

No other group or generation causes as much consternation amongst the marketing and development professionals I work with every day. Even the ones that are Millennials aren’t quite sure how to reach out to their peers.

What do they care about? How do they see the world around them? How do they want us to speak to them? What motivates them to become involved, whether “involved” means sharing a cause with a friend, showing up at an event, or making a gift?

What makes Millennials do anything?

Fortunately, the answers are out there, and many of them hinge on how dramatically our society has changed over the last few decades.

The Millennial generation—often defined as people who are ages 18 to 33 right now, though some researchers extend the definition as far as 35—is one that’s come of age in one of the most transformative periods in recorded US history. If we look at that transformation through a few key lenses, a unique picture emerges.

Life from a Millennial perspective

Diversity:  There’s no generation to have reached adulthood that’s more diverse than Millennials: out of the 87 million Millennials in the US, only 56% are white. And that trend will only continue in future years: more than 50% of babies born today in America are not white. For Millennials, a heterogeneous society is a given—and most see that as a very good thing.

Technology: While the Internet was born over 40 years ago, it didn’t become a part of our everyday lives until older Millennials were signing up for their first Hotmail accounts. The youngest Millennials have never known a world without mobile technology, and the oldest ones were schlepping phones by the time they were in high school. Until the past couple of decades, the family computer stayed lodged in one place and didn’t have near-magical access to the World Wide Web—which is why plenty of young Millennials have never heard the unmistakable sound of a dial-up modem.

The youngest Millennials have never known a world without mobile technology, and the oldest ones were schlepping phones by the time they were in high school.

Technology is also less expensive than ever before, with different types cell phones, tablets, and laptops available at ever-shrinking prices. There’s an entry point for everyone.

All this technology has dramatically changed the way we access and share information, whether we’re talking interpersonal communications, our work interactions, or the avalanche of news and entertainment that greets us when we pop on one of our many screens. The whole world seems like it’s just a tap away.

Opportunity: The job landscape in America has seen a massive shift away from goods-producing employment to service-offering employment, and as a result, Millennials are putting a higher priority on post-secondary education than any previous generation. More Millennials are pursuing and finishing college degrees than any previous generation—but they’re also spending more to do it, which puts greater pressure on them to earn, post-degree.

Millennials are also embracing the idea of trying multiple careers over their lifetime, or even crafting their own hybrid career from two options that interest them, such as “scientist/baker” or “paralegal/DJ”.

The idea of taking an entrepreneurial approach to work—creating your own company or independent role—is also appealing to many Millennials.  After watching their parents go through the job stresses of the Great Recession, many Millennials gave up the expectation of being a “company man/woman” for the entirety of their working lives.

Let’s recap quickly. Millennials are…

  • More culturally and socially diverse
  • More technologically savvy and connected
  • More educated, in terms of post-secondary degrees
  • More flexible in their approach to the career landscape
  • More entrepreneurial about creating their own path

… so it only makes sense they have their own unique approach to philanthropy and charity, too.

A portrait of the Millennial donor

Millennials only make up an estimated 11% of today’s donor population in the US—but that’s a percentage that stands to rise as their grandparents and parents retire with fixed incomes, and they become higher wage earners themselves.

If you want your organization to benefit when they’re ready to give (or give more), it makes sense to start engaging them now. Here’s a closer look at who they are as charitable supporters—and what they want from you.

Millennials only make up an estimated 11% of today’s donor population in the US—but that’s a percentage that stands to rise as their grandparents and parents retire with fixed incomes, and they become higher wage earners themselves.

  • Millennials want to invest—not just donate: While their parents and grandparents often wrote yearly checks or had monthly deductions taken out of their paychecks (“I gave at the office.”), Millennials aren’t looking for passive giving to a single organization out of obligation or habit. They want to give where the need exists right now and their impact will be greatest—and they want to know what the result of their giving will be.
     
    If you want to engage them in the work you’re doing, focus on telling stories about your impact, and sharing positive results in accessible ways. Tie giving to action: “With your support, we can accomplish this… and change lives in the process.” A little inspiration can go a long way.
  • Millennials want to support you in active ways that reflect their interests. Rather than just making a donation, Millennials are excited by more unique opportunities to participate in fundraising, whether they’re participating in a goal-setting challenge, or a unique activity they’ll want to share with their family and friends. Witness the popularity of stair climbs, mud runs, planking competitions, and flash mobs for charity—and the resulting posts on social media for Grandma and your friend from college to “like” or share.
  • Millennials want to hear from you in the places they spend their time. A strong social media presence is a must for nonprofits who want to connect with Millennials—and that doesn’t mean throwing your traditional solicitations up on Facebook. Compelling imagery, short videos, brief text updates, and event links are effective ways of making a connection quickly on social platforms—and they’re easily shared, too.
  • Millennials want to use their buying power for good. Cause marketing and corporate-philanthropy-as-a-business-model have engaged many Millennials to shop their way to supporting causes they care about. TOMS Shoes and the glasses and accessories company, Warby Parker, have seen great success with their one-to-one giving programs: whenever a customer buys one of their flagship products, they send a similar product to someone in need in a developing country. The Product Red Campaign, which touched products from Millennial-beloved lifestyle brands like Apple, Gap, Beats by Dre, and Moleskine are uniting to offer rose-colored products that will trigger an automatic donation to AIDS charities when customers purchase them.
  • Millennials love low-barrier-to-entry giving. The Red Cross has seen huge success with “text to give” campaigns in the wake of disasters, and the $10 price point makes for a quick giving decision. Companies like Whole Foods and Starbucks offer point-of-sale giving opportunities where you can add a few dollars to the cost of your groceries or coffee—and add your $5 to thousands of others of customers doing the same.
  • Millennials want to give online, or on the go. The days of sending a check in response to a snail-mail solicitation are practically ancient history to Millennials. They want to give online, through secure donation portals… and they want your website to be mobile-friendly, too.
  • Millennials want to help you connect. Many nonprofits are seeing success from creating “young professional” advisor councils, in which Millennials can provide support and ideas for targeting their peers, including event planning and invitation lists. It makes sense to go to the experts, after all!

Now is the time to get your organization ready to engage them in the ways they find both compelling and relevant, and to continue to foster your existing Millennial donors into long-term giving relationships.

While Millennials still account for a small segment of the donating public because of their age and early-career earning power, that segment stands to grow dramatically over the next few years—along with their donations.

Now is the time to get your organization ready to engage them in the ways they find both compelling and relevant, and to continue to foster your existing Millennial donors into long-term giving relationships. Mostly importantly, don’t discount their value as supporters of your vision and mission, and as ambassadors of your cause to the generations before—and after—their own.