By Julia Kohl
Julia Kohl is a development consultant for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, a nonprofit theater company in the Boston, MA area, and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in philanthropic studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. For the Spring 2019 semester, she joined Dr. Patricia Snell Herzog and fellow graduate student Taylor Parker in an independent study that focused on the intersections of life course development, emerging adulthood, and NextGen philanthropy, which led to the development of this blog post.
How to get millennials more engaged with the nonprofit community has been a popular topic for fundraisers for several years, spurred by the immense spending power of this generation.
For a more in-depth introduction about how the concepts of emerging adulthood and life course development can be used to understand this generation’s philanthropy, look for my future article on this topic. The specific focus here is to draw out and explain practical fundraising tips for millennials, based on existing research.
According to the Pew Research Center, the term millennial refers to those born between 1981 and 1996, which puts them between the ages of 23-38 in 2019. However, this cohort is already being followed by Generation Z, who are those born after 1997 that are under the age of 22 in 2019. While the emphasis here is on millennials in particular, both millennials and Generation Z can be categorized as NextGen donors, and their unique habits and characteristics can be understood from the perspective of their emerging adulthood life stage. Learning more about these dynamics will lead to a stable transition in philanthropic support as these donors age.
Psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, a leading scholar on the life stage called emerging adulthood, identified that 18-29-year-olds tend to use this stage to focus on themselves, exploration, learning, instability, change, and freedom. While some have labeled this generation as narcissistic and self-centered, Arnett asserts that scholars need to stop contributing to these narratives of negative stereotypes of emerging adults and millennials, since narcissism among young people is not on the rise and they are actively engaged in solving world problems.
While access to technology is not necessarily the same for emerging adults of different social classes, millennials are still the first generation that grew up as digital natives. Thus, technology has shaped their relationships with each other in interesting ways. This group is heavily dependent on their social networks for support, and social media can be used by emerging adults of all classes to widen their network and therefore ensure access to a broad range of future opportunities. Young people are active participants in defining their path through life, even though they are influenced by specific cultural beliefs, institutional structures, and historic events.
From these key findings about emerging adults and the millennial generation, themes about the best ways to fundraise for them emerge. First, a large-scale study by the Wallace Foundation in 2015 found that in terms of nonprofit arts organizations, it is important to explain why a cause is important and simplify pricing structures to make sure nonprofit events and performances are accessible to millennials. They want to know that their donation is making a difference, so focusing on gift impact is especially helpful.
Millennial nonprofit engagement comes in many different forms, and event-based and young professional group engagement is especially important for them. Millennials interact with nonprofits in many other ways as inquisitors, content consumers, peer agents, and activists, which can be seen through their roles as cause champions, volunteers, content creators, and financial supporters for organizational missions.
It is important for nonprofits to create social experiences for millennials, and focus on how they can share information about their cause through the broad social network of these young donors.
Millennials grew up in a digital revolution, so the importance of using technology to reach this group cannot be ignored. Information must be short and concise to gain millennials’ attention in the noisy world of social media. Perhaps surprisingly, email is the most effective way to reach millennials, even more so than through major social media platforms like Facebook.
It must be kept in mind that millennials are unlikely to donate the first time they hear about an organization, and most give to organizations to which they have a personal connection. So, even though nearly 75 percent of millennials give online when they donate, organizations must still use a multichannel approach for solicitation and be patient about when and how the donations come through.
Young people are more likely to become engaged in philanthropy the more they are asked, so fundraisers need to focus on the participation of millennial donors, and not necessarily the dollar amount of their gifts.
Despite the positives of technologically reaching this generation, fundraisers cannot underestimate the power of asking a millennial to give face-to-face. In one 2010 study, it was found that 39 percent of millennials give based on a personal ask, and 66 percent would respond to an in-person ask, especially if it were by friends or family members.
The element of trust is also incredibly important to securing millennial donations, and most millennials want to hear about an organization’s financial condition. They are more likely to support an organization if it is trusted by their family and friends. Generation Z, in particular, is very reluctant to trust nonprofits, corporations, and past generations that they think created many social problems, so nonprofit transparency and relationship building will only become more important as time goes on.
What can be learned from all of this is that millennials, who currently occupy most of the age range of emerging adulthood, do have specific fundraising strategies that work for them. However, further research needs to be done to see 1) how millennial donor needs will shift over time as they age, 2) if the best practices currently used for baby boomer donors will still be effective when millennials reach these older ages themselves, and 3) the best way to socialize these NextGen groups through family, school, and work environments that the philanthropic tradition is important.
Rather than assuming as popular media does that this generation does not have anything to offer philanthropically because they do not have enough monetary resources yet, there needs to be a focus on the importance of the new fresh perspectives that this generation can bring to the nonprofit sector.
Millennials do not consider themselves to be revolutionaries, but rather they want to think about new ways to reimagine old systems for the better. So, it is of vital importance to establish strong relationships with millennial donors now before they reach later life stages, to secure long-lasting support for nonprofit organizations far into the future.