Millennials (those born between the early 1980s and late 1990s) are different. Fundraisers have tried, and mostly failed, to get them engaged in the “giving money” part of philanthropy. Yet, millennials are civically engaged and volunteer. Is there a way we can convince them to give money AND time? I think so.
There are three characteristics that I believe define how millennials interact with the world. First, they live in a world of unlimited choices. There are an infinite number of apps and cable channels. They can order t-shirts online in their favorite color with a photo of their dogs. The menus to restaurants are pages long, and you can get everything paleo, veggie, vegan, gluten free, or any combination.
While having choices is generally a good thing, having unlimited choices leads to (1) FoMO—Fear of Missing Out—a decision once made closes out other options; (2) serial experimentation—you just try something—if it doesn’t work, you try something else; or (3) refusal to engage in the decision-making process because it’s too overwhelming. Anybody who has millennial kids or works with millennials recognizes these conditions.
The second characteristic (which relates to the first) is that they live in a fog of vague possibilities. Because there are so many choices, there is no need to settle on one, at least not right now. As a group they may seem reckless, but they are really risk-averse about the things in life that matter.
It is really, really hard to get millennials to make a commitment. Their life experiences have taught them that promises can be broken. Why take the risk? For example, I can’t think of any millennial who hasn’t been affected by divorce—either in their families, or among their friends’ families. This is a commitment-phobic bunch who long for stability.
Finally, millennials are deadline-driven. You just won’t get their attention unless there is a deadline involved and it is SOON. With so many unlimited choices and no need to make a decision, there is no reason to plan very far into the future. Deadlines are a major “kick in the pants,” propelling them toward decisions and action.
What does this mean for fundraisers?
Millennials, as a group, really care—they just need some direction, focus, and boundaries to channel their passion.
The following case study shows two attempts to engage groups in a fundraising endeavor for a nonprofit organization where I serve on the board. Both groups care about the “cause” and want to help. However, one group raised over SIX TIMES more funds than the other—for what probably took much less effort on the part of the group and the development director. FYI—the development director IS a millennial. She is passionate about her job, smart, energetic, and learns quickly—as you can see by the different results.
A student group wanted to raise funds for the nonprofit. The development director said, “Sure, go for it.” After all, whatever they raised, was “extra” unbudgeted money. She did not tell them what the money would be used for—there were so many needs. Also, she did not communicate any expectations to the group. In fact, she herself had none.
The group wanted an “experience,” and decided to sponsor a profit-share at a local restaurant, where a percentage of the dining bill would go to the nonprofit. The student group found a restaurant willing to make the donation, and the development director worked with the student group to create promotional material. The event “happened.” Although it took considerable effort to publicize the event, the result was that less than $100 was returned to the nonprofit.
The development director learned from Fundraiser 1. When a millennial vice president (the driving force in this endeavor) in a group with multigenerational membership, including millennials, told the development director that they wanted to help, the director decided to be specific and deadline-driven. She asked the group to raise the $600 to sponsor a lunch by a certain date. The group came through and underwrote the cost of the lunch. To this day, the development director has no idea how they raised the funds.
Why was Fundraiser 2 over SIX times more successful than Fundraiser 1? I believe it was because the development director channeled the generational characteristics of millennials into the effort by:
- Recognizing that millennials navigate a world with unlimited choices, the development director set some goals and boundaries in Fundraiser 2. There was a financial goal, and it had to be met by a specific date. In other words, the “ask” was direct and specific.
- Recognizing that millennials live in a fog of vague possibilities, the development director used a financial goal to give the millennials a focal point. To be successful, they HAD to meet the goal. Yet, the development director left it up to the millennials to figure out how.
- Recognizing that millennials are deadline driven, the development director channeled their focus to meet the goal by a specific date. She clearly communicated what success looked like. Unlike Fundraiser 1, the almost innate passion millennials have for “making a difference” was energized and directed in a very specific way.
- Note that both fundraisers offered “team” experiences. Because millennials love being part of something bigger than themselves, “working together” experiences are particularly attractive. Both fundraisers succeeded in getting millennials involved, but Fundraiser 2 was more successful raising money.
Direct, specific communication is especially important when engaging millennials. The world offers so many choices and possibilities. We can’t assume that millennials will be able to quickly sort out what’s what and why. We have to communicate exactly how we would like them to partner in the mission of our organizations. We also have to respect their creativity when we want them to engage in our mission.
That is why the My Class Gift process is so successful. The students are asked to be part of something bigger than themselves. The class agents are trained to creatively talk about philanthropy to their peers. They work together to meet a specific and collective goal. The participants learn exactly how the funds they raise will be used. Some programs even let the student participants direct the use of the funds. Finally, there is a “deadline” to participate in a signature event to celebrate their success.
As fundraisers, we have to accept and work with the “culture” of those whom we reach. Millennials offer a passion and a desire to do good. The My Class Gift model offers a fantastic opportunity to plant the seeds of life-long giving to a generation who, at a very young age, already have the drive to make the world a better place. Just imagine—how much of an impact they will make throughout their lives if they become philanthropically engaged during their college years!