How to solve the puzzle of donor stewardship across the generations

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Most people who donate to charity want to be thanked. They also want to receive some kind of recognition. And eventually, more often than not, they want to hear about the impact of their gift.

While these three steps – thanking, recognizing, and reporting back to donors – are fairly common practice when it comes to stewardship, it’s increasingly important for organizations to take individual preferences into account.

Today, Canadian donors are more diverse than ever and to properly engage them charities must go beyond a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Among other differences, there’s significant variation in the ages of donors and the generations they come from.

Given how much the world has changed over the past century, nonprofits need to consider the philanthropic priorities and preferences of the different generations so they can more effectively steward their supporters.

We spoke with donor-relations experts to get a better sense of how nonprofits are rethinking their stewardship practices in light of generational disparities.

Paying attention to donors’ preferred communications channels

Stewardship is the relationship-building process charities engage in after someone makes a donation to ensure they feel appreciated and continue to give.

Since it centres largely on connecting with donors, this process would be much simpler if all of these donors preferred communicating in the same way. But each generation grew up during different times of technological advancement, so there are significant differences in the ways they communicate and engage with charities.

According to Vanessa Chase Lockshin, an international fundraising consultant and president of The Storytelling Non-Profit, charities need to consider these differences and be aware of how their donors’ prefer to receive information.

“Whether it’s in the mail, by email, or by telephone – whatever it might be,” she says. “And we certainly see some kind of generational correspondence with that.”

Not surprisingly, younger donors are showing a preference for online communication channels. While mature donors were raised in an era of print media and tend to prefer print communication, younger generations were born into digital technology and tend to do everything online.

Millennials, for instance, are more likely than other generations to donate directly through social networking sites or text messaging.

“Naturally, there is higher adoption and usage of online giving among younger generations than there is among older generations,” says Jeremy Douglas, director of development at the David Suzuki Foundation.

The type of language, style of writing, and designs organizations use may also differ depending on what generation they’re stewarding.

Amanda Burrows – a fundraising trainer at SVP Vancouver – says she often applies a “more trendy” design when reporting to younger supporters and a “more utilitarian” design for older groups.

“But the message is the same,” she says. “A heartfelt ‘thank you’ about their gift and being involved.”

The thing to keep in mind is that while all donors need to hear about the impact of their gift, the communication style of how you disseminate that information can differ.

Making use of donor surveys

Although it may be tempting to assume how people want to receive information based on their ages, the best approach is to ask them.

“That’s not even a generational thing, that’s just something you should do,” says Burrows. “Even if all of your donors were the exact same age, wouldn’t you still be asking them how to communicate? Do you really think every 50-year-old is the same?”

Today, there are digitally savvy individuals across all age groups – so much so that a new term has emerged to reflect the digitally connected: Generation C. This so-called “generation” is more of a mindset or a behaviour system rather than an age group, and it transcends the generations.

In reality, no matter what their age, donors may wish to receive information through direct mail, email, videos, texts, websites, apps, or social media sites. What it really comes down to is individual preferences.

“I typically won’t look at ages so much as I’ll look at donor behaviour,” says Chase Lockshin. She recommends that charities carry out donor surveys to get to know their supporters better. “That way they can really craft both stewardship and fundraising programs that take their donor audience into account,” she says.

Nonprofits can use surveys to collect a spectrum of useful donor information. This can include communication preferences, but also other data such as socio-demographic factors (i.e. gender, income, region, and religion) and personal values.

Importantly, surveys give organizations a chance to ask donors about their reasons for giving. According to the experts we spoke with, it’s essential for organizations to find out what their donors expect from them and what motivates them to donate.

“Although the generation piece certainly plays a role, motivation is almost more important because it gives you a bit of insight into why the person has decided to make that gift,” says Douglas. “That really informs how you want to continue to engage them in the ongoing work of the charity to get them to continue to give.”

Understanding donor motivation and priorities

Donors may give to charity for a wide range of reasons, including for religious beliefs or morals, to give back to society, to learn something, to be involved in a cause, or to participate in something worthwhile.

According to Burrows, donor motivation generally falls into three categories: 1) they want to make a difference; 2) they want to be socially connected; or 3) they want recognition. “All donors give with those three things in mind,” she says.

But does one generation want to be more socially connected than another? Do younger donors want more recognition than older donors? How do motivations differ among different generations?

According to Statistics Canada, our population is made up of many generations including: baby boomers (1946-1965), parents of baby boomers (1919-1940), Generation X (1966-1971), children of baby boomers – also known as millennials (1972-1992) and Generation Z (1993 onward).

Each generation is unique because the era in which a person is born affects the development of their world-view. People are likely to have similar underlying value systems as other people their age since they were impacted by the same historical events and conditions growing up.

Since value systems drive our behaviour and attitudes, generations can influence donors’ philanthropic views and expectations. They can shape the types of organizations people support, their reasons for giving, as well as how they make decisions.

For instance, according to Mobile for Good: A How-To Fundraising Guide for Nonprofits, while baby boomers and their parents tend to be focused on addressing the needs of their communities, millennials are more focused on making the world a better place. And while mature donors tend to be loyal to a particular organization, younger givers tend to be less consistent.

But again, to truly understand your donors and their motivations for giving, the safest bet is to ask them. “Ask them questions, get to know their preferences, and just understand them more,” says Chase Lockshin.

Through donor surveys, which can be carried out in-person, over the phone, through direct mail or online, organizations can find out what makes their supporters tick.

“Depending on the channel people come in through and what their communication preferences are, what issues they like, what their giving capacity is – those are way more indicative of how we engage with people and steward them than how old they are,” says Douglas.

Ultimately, nonprofits need to do what they can to get to know their supporters and manage their donor relationships. They should take the time to cultivate and steward each generation according to their unique needs and preferences.

Rachel is a freelance journalist living in Ottawa, Ontario. She is a graduate of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and Carleton University’s journalism program. She has been a contributor to Charity Village since 2012.

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