Derrick Feldmann, M.A. ’04, is interested in what moves young adults from a cursory interest in a social issue to a passionate desire to do something about it.
Feldmann has spent more than a decade pioneering research into how young Americans interact with causes and nonprofits. The resulting body of work—the Millennial Impact Project—became the nation’s largest body of data and analysis on how American millennials relate to causes.
This research turned the stereotype of millennials as uncaring and uninvolved on its ear. The situation wasn’t that millennials were so-called “slacktivists” – they just didn’t fit the industry’s established structures of engagement and measurement.
In fact, this generation was changing the very face of philanthropy, and Feldmann’s annual Millennial Impact Reports provided nonprofits and causes with the data and resources they needed to reach this generation.
Today, he fulfills two roles: managing director for the Ad Councils strategic consultancy and Managing Director of Cause and Social Influence where he is researching who and what may be exerting their influence on young Americans (ages 18-30) as they relate to social issues and social movements. Influence is powerful, he said, so learning to recognize, understand and potentially wield it are critical for causes in today’s fast-paced digital world.
Feldmann, with support from the Case Foundation, recently completed Influencing Young America to Act, the first research report published by Cause & Social Influence. The research already has illuminated some unexpected influences, such as the role of television news in communicating to young adults and the strength of their peers’ opinions.
“The more we understand how and why people are motivated to take a stand and participate in a cause, the better able practitioners or fundraisers or marketers will be to say, ‘I saw that play out somewhere else, so we can anticipate what may happen now. We can learn from those moments that people decide to participate,’ ” he said.
Feldmann believes the best way to learn about and come to understand influence is through careful listening.
“In philanthropy, it’s vital to stop and listen to our audiences while we’re trying to accomplish tasks. To be able to think and not just act is a good skill to have. In fact, I began to develop mine from great conversations with professors who are experts in the field at the (formerly titled) Center on Philanthropy,” he said.
Along with his research on young adults and social movements, Feldmann shared advice on how current philanthropy students and those interested in the sector can engage with it and move it forward.
- Constantly ask questions about the philanthropic sector and wider world.
- Determine what is core to your values, beliefs, and interests, and find opportunities that you can express those through your work.
- Live out your passion, but contribute to greater knowledge in some way. Build on what previous generations have accomplished and advance it in some way.
“The exciting thing about our field is that you can advance as quickly as you can. You can invent, you can be an entrepreneur, and so on. We have a field that’s laden with opportunity,” he said.
Feldmann believes that collaborative work, as well as sharing initiatives and narratives, will enhance the field in the long run.
“Movements are not done by one person,” he said. “You’ve got to be at the table, discuss the assets you have available, and then ask how they can be used to better not only your organization, but others as well.”