How to attract and retain Millennial donors at your organization

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Surely by now Millennials must feel like monkeys in the zoo, analyzed and marketed to by everyone, quickly pronounced to be special snowflakes, condemned as slackers.

Meanwhile, this generation — who loathes the generalized term for those born between roughly 1980 and 2000 — have just been doing what people have always done: hunting and gathering, finding a mate and having kids.

But Penelope Burk, president of Cygnus Applied Research, who has surveyed thousands of Canadian donors since 2010, has found that the hunting and gathering thing — securing solid, fulltime employment — has been elusive for the so-called Millennials for years.

Until now. In Burk’s newest Burk Donor Survey, she discovers that Millennials are at last beginning to find a solid rung on the employment ladder. This, she says, has enormous implications for the nonprofit sector.

“While there has been a thread of suspicion that young people were going in a different direction, that they were disinterested in philanthropy, this is absolutely not the case,” says Burk. Rather, factors like underemployment and high student debt have kept gift values low. In fact, when painted with a broad brush, Millennials have long expressed a strong sense of philanthropy. According to Burk, “They simply haven’t had the means to be able to give in any statistically significant way.”

These young donors have been ignored, since the amount of a gift has traditionally been the primary signal for charities to pay attention to donors. But nonprofits and charities may not be able to afford to ignore this cohort much longer: although budgets are currently being met, it’s also true that the donor base for charities is increasingly shrinking and ageing.

Facing this looming fundraising challenge, Burk warns, “Relying too heavily on gift value as an indicator of future potential is especially counterproductive with young donors. There is an opportunity here to capitalize on rising incomes and strong affinity with philanthropy. But now is the time.”

Paul Nazareth, vice president, community engagement for Canada Helps goes further, saying, “The nonprofit sector is already five years behind in its acquisition of Millennial donors.”

With Millennials ready to give and nonprofits needing to develop philanthropic relationships with this cohort, CharityVillage wanted to look at how the nonprofit sector can approach the challenge.

Feeding frenzy

The temptation, of course, is to act like sharks scenting blood in the water. To this, Burk cautions, “I think charities would be ill-advised to say ‘okay, we’re home-free, we can bombard young people’. This strategy will send them in the opposite direction.”

Aneil Gokhale, director, philanthropy for the Toronto Foundation, agrees, saying, “If your main driver is attracting new dollars, you do your organization a disservice, may alienate young donors and even hurt peer organizations that may get painted with the same brush. Be mindful of the fact that this is more of a long play.” Of this long play, Burk observes, “An investment now in these committed, but currently not ‘generous’ donors means lower net profit temporarily but that situation will be quite different in five years or less.”

In fact, potential young donors tend to be annoyed by “Millennial fundraising programs” or organizations trying to figure out what new event they can do to attract Millennials. Karin Pasqua, community partnerships coordinator at Canuck Place, says, “Charities need to avoid pigeonholing by generation.”

The other temptation is to try to tweak old methods. “A lot of people are just trying to make old systems work — changing from direct mail to email marketing — but doing the same-old same-old isn’t the solution,” observes Nazareth. Pasqua agrees. “Too often organizations think the question is: how do we engage those people, how do we get them tied to our organization for the next twenty years and turn them into legacy donors. That isn’t necessarily the way things should go.”

Instead Nazareth calls for a “for-you by-you revolution” where Millennials themselves are part of the solution, and in fact, sometimes, even part of changing the question.

Laura Flatt serves as a volunteer board member for Plugin, whose events for young tech professionals in Kitchener, Ontario “raise funds and awareness for charitable causes that help strengthen the diverse community we call home.”

“We want to help in a meaningful way and to bring the community together, finding different ways to contribute and get involved. Businesses and charities need to change how we see and approach charitable giving,” says Flatt.

Talk to me

As the best-educated generation in history, whose social media experience has given them a global outlook and a strong responsibility for social good, Millennials often have solid opinions and support initiatives that benefit the nonprofit sector. What is often forgotten, says Pasqua, is that “Twenty- and thirty-somethings all grew up fundraising. We have all grown up in philanthropy, whether it was raising money for Girl Guides, Jump Rope for Heart or band equipment.”

Nazareth challenges organizations to talk with these donors and potential donors to understand what they want, and to ask them (and yourself) hard questions about what is and isn’t working.

In fact, the best way to “develop a relationship” with a potential Millennial donors is to actually develop a relationship with them, one characterized by respect and listening. Pasqua says, “In a time where we are becoming increasingly disconnected, we have wonderful opportunities to build relationships simply by picking up the phone, sending a handwritten note or a quick text, depending on a donor’s preference.”

“For donors with funds, the challenge is where to give, to whom, and how much,” says Gokhale. “Charities should start with knowledge and education — and allow ‘the ask’ to follow.”

It is also increasingly important to broaden the definition of relationship and to blur lines between previously siloed parts of organizations. This is particularly important when it comes to volunteers. At one time, volunteers might have been considered as a separate group from donors, but the 2013 Millennial Impact Report describes the relationship trajectory between a non-profit and Millennials as beginning with inviting (e.g. micro-volunteering, social media engagement), then immersion (e.g. pro bono services, making donations) and finally impact (e.g. full involvement in organization, being an ambassador).

Pasqua describes a “missed opportunity” by an organization she volunteered for in a significant role. “Since then, I have not been asked directly for a gift and haven’t been asked to come back in a greater capacity. I’ve only received Mail Chimp emails which rarely even make it into my inbox. If they had sent a personal email to me or made a quick phone call, they could have kept me engaged.”

Know who you’re in relationship with

It’s important to understand that Millennials are passionate about causes, but not necessarily committed to particular non-profits and charities.

Anne Melanson, president of Bloom Non Profit Consulting Group, reminds charities, “Be mindful that Millennials have an array of philanthropic options presented through all media channels on a regular basis, and are exposed to more than their parents are or were. They have an abundance of choice – and are prepared to play a smaller role in a crowd-sourced environment or other opportunities if they are confident that impact will be realized.”

Charities and nonprofits wanting to connect with this demographic need to meet them where their priorities are, says Melanson. The Millennial Impact Project found that nonprofit organizations have an opportunity to be “conduits of causes” for Millennials, that the responsibility is with organizations to “inspire and show Millennials how their support can have a tangible effect.”

Impact is what these donors are looking for. Flatt says, “People want to see the end result of where their dollar or time is going, to see the output of their investment. They want the opportunity to use their skills to help, and they find it rewarding to get involved in a hands’-on way.” Gokhale says, “When we ask for funds, we need to not only show people what can be accomplished with those funds and the importance of that impact, but also give them a way to be part of making that impact.”

In fact, 51% of donors under 35 surveyed by Burk said they could have given more, and that what would move them was having more specific information on what is being accomplished through donations. Burk adds, “Because the current fundraising system (and most people who work in it) prioritize gift value over everything else, young donors are often denied personal acknowledgement courtesies and, especially, meaningful information on what is happening with their contributions based on a straight-forward investment/return calculation.”

Melanson also notes that a point of entry for this cohort is more likely with “a cause they can wrap their arms around and when it’s done they can check it off — rather than an ongoing, never-ending project.”

Pasqua says, “Most people my age and younger might support a charity for a few years, and then life changes, and we switch charities. We may direct funds to companies rather than charities — many companies that are socially responsible is where we shop.” For Pasqua, this is also where cause marketing comes to mind. She advises charities, “Look for companies wanting to be seen as philanthropic and partner with them.”

Social creatures

A key to understanding Millennials is to know that they are profoundly social — both online and in the real world.

Doing good has become a social activity, says a recent Forbes article, which notes that, like Kitchener’s Plugin, “…Millennials are getting more hands-on, participating in events that allow them both to volunteer themselves and/or raise money from their friends and family to support their endeavors.” In fact, according to the Millennial Impact Report, 64% of millennials surveyed fundraised for walk/run/cycling events for charity in 2014.

And there are overlooked benefits from social fundraising. Burk’s research shows that while those who donated to a walkathon, for instance, were initially motivated by the relationship with their friend asking, 19% said they would give again directly to the charity if asked.

“This is a much better rate than any other method of donor acquisition,” says Burk, “and one charities often fail to capitalize on.” Charities involved in Plugin events have found a number of participants stay involved with their organization — whether as volunteers or giving proceeds from other self-organized events. Flatt says, “The more people know, the more they actually get involved.”

Millennials are also famously connected online — a Blackbaud study found that 83 percent of Millennials owned a smartphone and more than half of them were likely to give by mobile phone. While Millennials aren’t alone in their preferences for online donations — online giving is “on a trajectory to become the dominant method of giving” (Future World Giving 2017) — they lead the way.

Where younger donors are different from older cohorts is in the matter of social media: in one study 23% of Millennials said social media was an extremely or very important way to stay in touch, compared with 0% of Civics, 3% of Boomers, and 10% of Generation X. Just as philanthropic activity is shared through social experiences in real life, so Millennials want to share their experiences online, encouraging their friends to get involved.

Pasqua says that the three best strategies to engage younger donors are:

  1. Ensure your website and peer-to-peer fundraising are mobile-friendly.
  2. Be pro-active and very social with social media. Treat social media less as marketing and branding, and more as a relationship-building opportunity.
  3. Develop a strong third-party program and solid cause marketing. Use good peer-to-peer fundraising platforms that create opportunities for donors to fundraise for you, and develop tools (such as images to use on social media) to make such programs work. Develop relationships with businesses and organizations within the community who can fundraise on your behalf with their customers and constituents.

Don’t forget the old

It’s always tempting to think that the newest methods are the best, especially when it comes to attracting younger donors, but Melanson cautions, “It’s as simple and challenging as diversifying revenue. We can’t rely on technology and abandon old strategies or older stewardship relationships.”

Pasqua confirms this idea, saying, “There is no magic solution to engaging young donors just as there wasn’t twenty years ago. We still need to use the strategies we’ve always used as well as adapting and keeping up with new strategies.”

Sometimes older strategies actually work best. Burk observes old-fashioned mail can be more effective than electronic mail—frequent email solicitations end up in spam filters, younger people are willing to quickly delete electronic solicitations, and direct mail is a surprisingly effective method of solicitation for Millennials for whom physical mail is a welcome novelty.

Similarly, contrary to some expectations, younger donors welcome the idea of being monthly donors — more than half of the Millennials surveyed by the Millennial Impact Report (2015) said they would be interested in making monthly donations to a nonprofit.

Finally, Pasqua says, “Everyone is trying to do more with less, to raise more, to create new programs, so we tend to focus on new donors and assume our existing donors will retain themselves because of the wonderful impact of our organization. People forget that the time spent on stewardship and expressing gratitude comes back multifold – and that is especially true for the millennial generation. We don’t have to buy into the false stereotype that Millennials are special snowflakes, but we do want to make all donors feel special for picking our organization.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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