Generations and advocacy: What approach works best?

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The Internet is full of articles and think pieces pitting one generation against another, whether decrying a lack of patriotism among younger Canadians or lamenting the consequences of boomers’ handling of the world economy. Though this makes for sensational headlines, in truth, our different generations have a lot more in common than we have dividing us. Across all ages, Canadians believe immigrants have a positive impact on the economy, support secure online voting, and are concerned about climate change impacts.

Where generations differ is where and how to reach them on these and other public issues. Savvy nonprofits know that to maximize support, you need to speak to people on a more individual level. That means delving into the details around your supporters' unique circumstances, interests, needs and concerns. It’s pretty obvious that talking about rising sea levels isn’t the most compelling way to sell someone in Manitoba on the need for climate action. The same principle applies when talking to baby boomers vs. millennials. The more you understand about generational differences, the more effective your segmenting - and campaigning - will be.

I like to break campaign strategies into the why, what and where. You want to be clear on exactly what you’re asking people to do, understand why they’d want to get involved, and figure out where you can reach them.

For boomers:

The Why: Boomers may have started out their activism as countercultural rabble rousers, but these days, they don’t need to fight the system. They are the system. Asking them to improve public institutions and holding them accountable is both part of their history and can appeal to their desire to leave a strong legacy for future generations.

Also, don’t forget: Boomers have a lot of experience and knowledge they’ve gained over their careers. Don’t discount it. The biggest mistake nonprofits can make with boomers is patronizing them. They’re not old, or decrepit or past their prime. Your messaging should acknowledge their experience and highlight how your campaign is a way to apply it for the greater good.

The What: It should come as no surprise that baby boomers are the largest donors to nonprofits. After all, in the twilight of their careers, they’re making more money and, without kids at home to support, have fewer costs (for now at least). While it’s important to instill the value of giving into all your supporters, contributions are an extremely valuable and important way this cohort can be involved.

They also have time. The oldest boomers are already past retirement age, giving them at minimum an extra 40 hours each week to fill. Older adults contributed more than 1 billion volunteer hours in 2010. Try mobilizing them as your ground force to call their MPs, write op-eds or letters to the editor, canvass or attend public hearings on your issue.

The Where: If you think baby boomers aren’t using social media, I’ve got a flying pig to sell you. Google found that 71 percent of boomers use social media everyday. The key difference is that Facebook accounts for nearly all of it. They’re also the generation most likely to share on Facebook, making them a potent tool for expanding your online reach. That said, it’s important to make your case to boomers in more traditional forms they’re comfortable with too, like TV ads, direct mail, and even phone calls.

For Gen X:

The Why: Poor Gen X - outnumbered by boomers to one side and millennials to the other, this generation is often forgotten. That said, they’ve got a lot on their plate and a lot to lose. Researchers have found Gen Xers tend to be more pessimistic about their futures and financial security, so your messaging has to acknowledge this and also use it to mobilize Gen Xers to support your work to change the outcome. Gen Xers are increasingly getting involved locally, so making your issue more local and personal can help motivate them to action.

The What: Among all generations, Gen Xers have the most demands on their time. These folks - in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s - are balancing the most intense parts of career with raising families, caring for aging parents and, of course, managing all the little things from laundry to paying bills on time. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about greater issues, but activism needs to fit in with these other commitments. They, too, can be donors, but they’re also a great source of online activists. Actions like signing an online petition or retweeting an article can help you raise awareness about your campaign both among the public and within the halls of power. Plus, Gen X leads the way on peer-to-peer giving, so tapping into their network can pay dividends.

The Where: Gen X may not have grown up with the Internet, but they ushered in the digital revolution. Of course, they use social media too, but as working folks in front of laptop all day (67 percent use a computer every day - nine percentage points higher than Millennials), email is a great way to get your message in front them.

For Millennials:

The Why: It’s no question millennials are on the rise and changing how activism is done. As the generation with the most years left on earth, they certainly will be disproportionately impacted by the issues and policy decisions we make today. Despite the odds, millennials are optimistic about the future, and you need to harness that optimism to spur action. They’re also engaged: 70% of millennials consider themselves social activists, which means they’re primed for a message on how they put that identity into practice.

The What: Millennials may be financially strapped, but they’re also generous with their time and money. Plus, they’re willing to make changes in their daily lives to better live their values. Ask them for money, to sign petitions, and show up at protests. But also focus on how their purchases and support for corporate responsibility can affect change. If you care about humane treatment of farm animals, ask millennials to buy cage free eggs. Plus, they’re vocal about sharing their beliefs and opinions online and in person at rallies and marches. Use them as a megaphone for your cause.

The Where: Mobile. Be it email, social media, or your website, you can bet that millennials are looking it at on their phones. But beyond optimizing your content for mobile, the phone-toting generation offers opportunities to reach people at moment's notice. Texts and push alerts can reach folks if they’re on the bus or at a bar. This means you can mobilize these people quickly without waiting for them to go home and check their mail or email. They’re your front line against new developments on a campaign.

Emily Logan is the Director of Acquisition and Retention at Care2, where her team works with member activists to spread the word about their petitions, builds petition campaigns into full-scale organizing efforts and helps keep current Care2 members happy and engaged.

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