Secure your charity’s future: woo young donors now

publication date: Aug 25, 2014
author/source: Janet Gadeski

Janet GadeskiDonors under 35 often give modestly compared to their parents and grandparents. They are three times as likely to be unemployed as older Canadians of working age (StatsCan), and in the near term, their student debt inhibits both their giving potential and their sense of financial well-being. But despite all that, says Penelope Burk, they merit far more attention than most charities are willing to give them.

While presenting the preliminary results of the 2014 Burk Donor Survey in an August webinar, she noted that the average amount of student debt for Canadians is $27,000 (Canadian Federation of Students). In the US, a whopping 37 per cent of households headed by someone under 40 have at least some student debt. That plays out most dramatically in the household’s net worth: the average net worth of a young household with student debt is just $8,700. But without student debt, a household in the same age bracket is worth an average of $68,000! (Young Adults, Student Debt and Economic Well-Being, Richard Fry, Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends, May, 2014)

While similar data is not available in Canada, it is reasonable to assume that the existence of student debt makes a radical difference to a young person’s financial behaviour.

Management-level salaries just around the corner

Now let’s look at employment prospects. Consider our own field of fundraising for a moment. In other research, Burk has found that 50 per cent of senior-level fundraisers plan to retire in the next seven years. That means a lot of mid-level professionals are going to be promoted to senior positions – and senior salaries. And that trend is equally true for every other profession.

“Those young people will soon be front and centre in the business world,” Burk points out. “You need to capture their attention now, so they already have a relationship with you when they can afford to give generously.”

Giving levels already hopeful

Even with their modest incomes, young donors are generously inclined. From 2012 to 2013, 55.5 per cent of the under-35 respondents reported that they had increased their giving, and 33 per cent had supported more causes. By contrast, the middle-aged donors who give a significant percentage of most charities’ revenues are rationalizing their giving more and more. Over half (54.1 per cent) supported just one to five causes, having eliminated other charities to support their favorites more generously.

That means your donor acquisition programs may draw higher numbers, although lower initial gifts, if they are aimed at those under 35. The trend will likely continue: 33.2 per cent of those under 35 intend to give more in 2014 than they gave in 2013. While that data reflects an intention rather than an accomplished fact, the intention is certainly in line with previous behaviour.

Already willing, able to give more

Perhaps the most heartening statistic about those under-35 donors is that 40.6 per cent of them said they could have given more than they did in 2013. What would have motivated that extra giving? No surprise there – Burk found that young donors like the same treatment as older givers: prompt, meaningful acknowledgement, designation of gifts to a particular program or project, and sharing measurable results before you ask again.

So stop undervaluing younger donors, she urges. Avoid the tactics of mass acknowledgement, infrequent information and minimal personal contact that most charities deploy with low-dollar donors for the sake of affordability. Instead, as with planned giving, start cultivating and stewarding younger donors now for the sake of future benefit. And get them on your Board of Directors: 61 per cent of donors under 35 volunteer, but only 19 per cent sit on boards - a forum where they can guide charities in reaching out to their young peers.

“Their means are not as great as older donors,” Burk says, “but their responses to my survey show that their interest, attitude and thoughtfulness is just as great.”

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