How do you solve a problem like millennials?

publication date: Jan 29, 2015

Josh Bowman

A common misconception is that millennials are entitled and narcissistic with no work ethic. How much attention should charities pay to this demographic anyway?

Ask a traditional fundraiser and they will tell you: direct mail still raises the bulk of a charity’s budget (Not like it used to when people made money on acquisition mailings, of course). And true organizational growth comes from major donors and bequests. The fundraiser will tell you to focus on older donors, traditional demographics…the people who are writing Wills.

And they’re not wrong. But…there is a HUGE generation of young professionals who will be the benefactors of those estates. That means there will be an enormous transfer of wealth to a segment of the population that is currently all but ignored by traditionally-minded charities.

Perhaps just having Facebook, Twitter and email is enough effort for this “difficult” group of people, they say.

What you may not know about millennials

Millennials represent 1/3 of the population in the U.S. according to a recent government report, and a similarly large number of Canadians.

Millennials are creative, tech-savvy, diverse, and more socially progressive than any previous demographic. They like to travel and aren't afraid of a little insecurity. 59% of millennials have no plans to buy a house and would rather rent. However, they are consumers, buy smartphones, videogames, and much more by the truckload.

Many millennials are entrepreneurs (maybe because of a lack of jobs, maybe because they have individualistic streaks), and many very successful tech start-ups are run by precocious millennials. Just walk around downtown San Francisco and look for the multi-coloured balls and pinball machines in office building windows. Also cat cafes, artisanal jam stores, and fashion lines. They like to work from home, wear jeans, and have flexible hours.

And these creative, buzzfeed-reading, diverse, socially-aware, consumer entrepreneurs are about to inherit a lot of money and a lot of well-paying jobs. All  while keeping their eyebrows on fleek.

You can say that millennials are entitled or lazy if you want, but the truth is that if you think you still need to be raising money in ten, fifteen or twenty years time, you may want to take the time to understand what makes millennials tick (hint: the answer is always pizza).

Everything is about to change

Many charities won’t try to engage the next generation of donors; they will continue to focus limited resources on bequests and major gifts in the same traditional ways. It makes sense to focus on major and planned giving, but we have to be aware that how we ask for those gifts and acquire/steward/solicit new donors is changing rapidly as older donors age and young donors become household decision-makers.

Mail is becoming less and less relevant. Huge sums of money are already beginning to fall into the hands of many thousands of millennials. Your stalwart supporters are going to start introducing you to their kid Henry, who wears jeans and t-shirts to work and who has already asked his Redditor pals about your charity and made a decision about whether or not to donate (All in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee). Yes – Henry will expect to be treated a little differently.

Where to start

There is no magic bullet here. The usual fundraising solutions still apply.

·       Test everything

·       Run focus groups

·       Hire and understand young staff and ask for their opinions

·       Get millennials on the board

·       Make sure you prioritize diversity and social justice

But most importantly, start now! When the enormous transfer of wealth starts happening, you don't want to be trying to figure out what Bobby Shmurda did about a week ago

Millennials want to be actively involved. They care about transparency and accountability and we better get ready

I'm still not 100% sure what being "on fleek" means, but I know I should probably figure it out.

Josh Bowman, CFRE, is the Fundraising Director for CAPE, an environmental and health charity based in Toronto. He is a professional fundraiser, story-teller, comedian, and blogger. He has worked and consulted in Vancouver, New York, and now Toronto for almost a decade.


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