Generation Thumb | npENGAGE

Generation Thumb

By on Oct 15, 2009


A popular topic at conferences and water coolers in recent months has been how different generations engage with nonprofits. This is a subject that I’ve covered in my presentation “The Changing Nature of Online Fundraising” over the past year.

This week at the Blackbaud’s 2009 Relationship Management Conference here in London the topic of generations came up once again. I had the chance to sit down with some people from Sponge, our mobile messaging partner in the UK, to talk to them about what they are seeing in the sector. Roger Jones from The Good Agency also brought up the topic in a discussion we had about charities and social media.

Right now a lot of nonprofits are trying to understand how to engage Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y supporters. A lot of time and attention is being spent on how social media and mobile can be used to build relationships with Gen Y or Millennials. And there’s another group to add to the mix: Generation Thumb

Now, before I dive into Generation Thumb it’s probably helpful to do a quick recap on the different generation groups. There is some debate on exactly when these generations start and end. I won’t wade into that academic debate, but I use this chart in presentations to help explain the general age ranges and sizes of Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y.

		     Born     	    Age	          Size
Baby Boomers	 1945 – 1960	  49 – 64	78 million
Generation X  	 1960 – 1980	  29 – 49	51 million
Generation Y	 1980 – 1995	  14 – 29	75 million

There is a lot of research into how each of these groups think, act, and engage differently. The biggest change to the nonprofit sector is that both Gen Xers and Gen Yers do not share the same giving attitudes as the Baby Boomers. While Boomers are more likely to view giving as part of a civic responsibility, the younger generations place a much higher emphasis on peer-to-peer and direct impact-based giving. This in part explains the growth of friends asking friends event fundraising, alternative giving options like Heifer International’s gift catalog, and websites like and

Nonprofits need to balance how different generations have preferences to give their time, talent, and treasure based on where they are in their lives. It has certainly been well documented how Gen Y has been a positive source of volunteers for many nonprofit organizations. Blackbaud often does an age segmentation exercise with clients to get them to start thinking about how their constituents are spread across the different generations.

This leads us back to Generation Thumb. This group was born mostly after 1995 and their primary communication is mainly done on mobile devices. This means they spend a lot of time using their thumbs to type and navigate. It also accounts for the explosion of acronyms and abbreviations used to decrease typing time. An article in the Telegraph earlier this year noted that children get their first mobile phone at the average age of eight.

We don’t know what they think about nonprofits just yet, but the commercial world is doing a lot of research to try and understand them. As you continue to plan around inspiring and engaging Gen X and Gen Y then also begin to put Generation Thumb on your radar screen. This is a distant early warning that they are an even more unique audience.


Steve MacLaughlin is the Vice President of Data & Analytics at Blackbaud and bestselling author of Data Driven Nonprofits.

MacLaughlin has been featured as a fundraising and nonprofit expert in many mainstream publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, USA Today, The NonProfit Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Bloomberg, and has appeared on NPR.

He is a frequent speaker at events including the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP), American Marketing Association (AMA), Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), Direct Marketing Fundraisers Association (DMFA), Giving Institute Summer Symposium, National Association of Independent School (NAIS), Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), Institute of Fundraising National Convention (United Kingdom), Civil Society Conference (Netherlands), International Fundraising Congress (Netherlands), Ask Direct Fundraising Summer School (Ireland), and a keynote speaker at several conferences across the social good sector.

Steve previously served on the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) Board of Directors and is currently an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University.

He is a frequent blogger, published author of a chapter in the book People to People Fundraising: Social Networking and Web 2.0 for Charities, and is a co-editor of the book Internet Management for Nonprofits: Strategies, Tools & Trade Secrets. His latest book, Data Driven Nonprofits, became a bestseller in 2016.

Steve earned both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University.

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