How to Build Relationships with Your Future Major Donors and Board Members: Millennials | npENGAGE

How to Build Relationships with Your Future Major Donors and Board Members: Millennials

By on Jul 28, 2014


“People try to put us down (talkin ’bout my generation)

Just because we get around (talkin ’bout my generation)

Things they do look awful cold (talkin ’bout my generation)

I hope I die before I get old (talkin ’bout my generation)”

– Pete Townshend

The question of how to bridge the divide between generational gaps is nothing new. Take parents, for example. Parents fixate on trying to understand their children’s generation in order to better engage and motivate them. Put simply, it’s their drive to be the “cool” parent (I’ll spare my mother any personal embarrassment by recounting childhood anecdotes about that very drive).

Turning this idea to the non-profit industry, how many organizations make a true concerted effort to be the “cool parent”? Consider this an anecdotal question but, for those of you working in the nonprofit sector, when was the last time you muttered something along the lines of “Well, I’m not sure that would really work. Our donors are older.”? The resentment which youth feel towards older generations, which The Who describes above, has a specific nugget of truth in it for non-profit organizations specifically. While the industry as a whole focuses the least attention on the Millennial demographic, they oftentimes don’t focus on them at all.

It’s absolutely vital to the long-term health of your organization to have a plan, any plan, to bring this group into the fold of your mission.

But before we talk about how you do that, it’s important to justify why Millenials are so important (aside from self-flattery, of course). To be fair to the lack of attention we receive as a demographic, Millennials only comprised 11% of total charitable giving last year. Compare that to the largest demographic, Baby Boomers, who represent 43% of total giving. It’s easy to justify not focusing on Millennials in the short term from a purely dollars based standpoint. Yet, from a logical perspective, this is a completely shortsighted position. Long term organizational health requires that you refill your donor pipeline and, while Millennials might not be able to shoulder the load of being your biggest givers for the next ten years, they won’t be givers at all if you don’t get them into the pipeline early.

Consider this:

Millennials have, for the past 5 years, responded at the highest rate of any group that they are likely to increase their amount of charitable giving in the coming year. Furthermore, Millennials responded that they were likely to increase giving to their favorite charity by 18% in the coming year, matures responded that they planned to decrease giving to their favorite charity by 4%. That figure is twice as high as Gen X and Boomers. In some ways then, Millennials are your low hanging fruit. And, despite the fact that they may account for the lowest percentage of total charitable giving, 60% still donate, on average, $481 across 3.3 charities annually. Tell me a Development Director, Executive Director, or Board Member, that wouldn’t love to see a few gifts of $145 from 25 year olds? Millennials are a very viable group to engage for many reasons and their dollar value to your organization should be one of them.

Millennials can be a difficult group for the average charity to connect with.

Millenials are driven by different factors than your likely largest source of funding (Boomers) and that makes it difficult to message to them. Communication efforts are going to be largely tailored around what drives your largest source of funding, yet that’s not resonating with the group that’s going to refill your donor pipeline. Without a significant increase in the sophistication of your mark-comm efforts, it can be easy for this to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Making a difference” means something very different for Millennials than it does other generations.

Millennials rank lowest in believing that “donating money” is the primary means of making a difference. Instead, Millennials are enticed by volunteer opportunities, chances to spread the word about your organization, and give in-kind gifts. That means, more than any other group, Millennials won’t respond as well to a direct appeal for money. They need to be shown other opportunities to engage with your organization, and that’s not something that most organizations are used to doing since their largest funders feel that their primary means of making a difference are financial donations.

Despite the challenges associated with engaging my generation, here are a few steps organizations can take to create a robust strategy for connecting with us that won’t simply be an exercise in futility:

1. Engage with them on their terms.

  • 98% use their cell phone as their primary phone
  • 90% are on Facebook
  • 86% report using the internet to check email

They’re expecting you to be mobile, so make sure that you’re establishing a presence to connect with supporters on the channels the prefer.

2. Communicate with them about things they uniquely care about.

18% of Millennials believe that spreading the word about your organization is a primary means of helping you make a difference. Make sure you’re informing them of opportunities to do just that. Millennials are, somewhat surprisingly, the demographic that most wants to be shown the impact of their donation. While older demographics will still respond to appeals that pull on emotion or organizational loyalty, Millennials are the ones most concerned with organizational accountability.

Close to 70% of the people that make their first gift to your organization this year won’t make a repeat gift.

A large portion of first time donors who will not make another gift to your organization will likely be Millennials and it’s because they’re interested in causes, not organizations. Millennials can have shifting loyalties if your organization doesn’t do a good enough job of showing how their contribution to you has paid off. Show them what their donations have done and keep doing it so that they remain loyal, lifetime constituents.

3. Harness the power of Millennials for your organization

Millennials are uniquely more likely to engage with you in than any other demographic. One of the biggest areas which stands out, and is of greatest benefit to your organization, is their penchant for engaging in peer to peer fundraising, both as participants and donors. Millennials are the likeliest group to donate to crowd fundraising events and nearly half of them acted as participants for said events.

Additionally, Millennials can serve your organization well in other areas.

Millennials are generally the most active constituents you’ll have on social media and the most likely to promote your cause within the space. This is all dependent, once again, on giving these constituents engaging content which they can share. For instance, more than any other social media channel (including Facebook), YouTube is the favorite amongst Millennials. And, they’re more likely watch an online video about your organization that promotes you on Facebook. In working with non-profits on a daily basis, I can say that it’s not the norm for an organization to actively promote its YouTube presence and it’s likely they don’t have one at all.

“If you build it, they will come.”

Cheesy Field of Dreams references aside, Millenials shouldn’t be a group ignored by your organization. But the expectation that Millennials will respond to efforts that have traditionally worked for you is also invalid. My demographic has unique tendencies and preferences in how we want to be engaged, more so I’d argue, than any other demographic.

Looking forward to the next ten years, I’d predict that we’ll see a greater emphasis continue to be placed on social, mobile, and impact based engagement. Millennials are fickle creatures and are the least likely of the demographics to develop organizational ties. To Pete Townshend’s point, “just because we get around” doesn’t mean that we are a group that can be ignored by your organization for long. These are the people that maybe five, probably ten, and definitely fifteen years from now will be your board members and major donors. And I think it’s safe to say that we won’t have eased into the patterns you’re used to expecting from your biggest donors now. So, you better get used to engaging with us because we’re not going anywhere.


Marshall Simmonds is an Account Manager at Blackbaud who works with clients in New England. He’s passionate about working with Blackbaud’s clients to solve their complex business issues through better leveraging technology to grow their missions. When he’s not working with nonprofits he’s busy as a hapless Detroit sports fan.

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