Are millennials rewriting philanthropy or the general public?

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

It’s now a ubiquitous headline: Millennials are the largest generation. In 2016, they surpassed boomers at 79.8 million.  By 2020, those born from roughly 1980 to 2000 are projected to make up half of the workforce.

For better or worse, millennials may be the most labeled, the most stereotyped generation ever. Millennials, however, are growing up, making waves, and making traditional institutions take notice.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Case Foundation, the millennial generation is a “tech savvy, entrepreneurial, educated and independent-minded cohort that is driven to ‘do good.’  They are actively reshaping advocacy, engagement, service and philanthropy on a scale that has never before been experienced. As a result, traditional models of engagement, movement building and measurement are evolving to keep pace with their new ideals.”

Derrick Feldmann, the founder and president of the Indianapolis- and Florida-based research firm Achieve, has seen the movement up close. He has led The Millennial Impact Project for 10 years funded by the Case Foundation. The youngest members of the generation are now 18.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s get millennials involved because they’re going to solve it for us.’ At the end of the day, we have to move the general population from interest to deeper action,” said Feldmann, who is a 2001 graduate of the Lilly Family School on Philanthropy. “So that’s where I think we’ve got this challenge is whether this is a generational thing versus we’re in a new stage of how individuals get involved in social issues in our organizations.”

“Our future as a fundraising field is an organization’s ability to look at any individual who has any asset and say, ‘If you want to address this issue, we can do that with you, no matter what you have.’ So that’s the shift. And millennials are driving that shift, but it’s a shift that has started years before that. Millennials by sheer size and force are starting to implement it and make it happen.”

One arena where this plays out is the work environment. Millennials search for companies that are socially responsible and oftentimes check the company’s volunteer policy before applying for a job, according to Chris Herndon, United Way of Central Indiana’s chief marketing and engagement officer.

Part of United Way’s strategy was to find a way to help employers create an environment that offers community engagement, and at the same time introduce the age group to community issues. So three years ago, it started LINC — Lead.Impact.Network.Change — a membership group for young professionals ages 22 to 30. A fall event, called Plant it Forward, had members come together at Flanner Farms and build garden boxes for an urban garden.

LINC is designed to introduce its members to worthy causes and issues that United Way tackles, like poverty, mental health, financial sustainability, homelessness and childhood literacy.

“We hope that this exposes people to community challenges, helps them better understand how United Way is fighting some of these challenges, gives them an opportunity to see how they can connect through us to help address some of these issues. What LINC allows the participants is the try-before-you-buy approach,” said Herndon. “They want to volunteer or experience something first before they give, before they commit financial resources.”

Indianapolis was one of the first to implement this United Way national strategy, now with similar groups in at least 20 other major markets. With much of United Way’s fundraising done in tandem with corporations, the agency is the conduit for that engagement, and at the same time creating a consistent experience across markets.

“If you’re a company that employs in Indianapolis, and Atlanta and Houston, you want to be able to offer something that’s consistent across your company’s footprint,” said Herndon, who is himself a GenXer.

While Feldmann sees merit in courting millennials, he cautions nonprofits not to stray too far from their past initiatives. He urges all organizations to look at their entire supporter base over the past 10 years.

“We know that there are approaches to take with millennials that will work, but the first thing is you cannot go off segmenting unless you understand and have the foundational element figured out first,” he said.

“If anybody raises his or her hand no matter what age, and says, ‘I kind of care about the issue to work on,’ then you can take and move them along a journey of engagement. Get people active in many different ways beyond giving,” he said.

He cites Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and Relay for Life as nonprofits that have sound supporter models by engaging all age groups. These nonprofits help individuals see others who believe in the mission just like them. Relay for Life for the American Cancer Society’s collegiate level and lower has allowed individuals to create their own narratives, rather than define everything.

“Look at it and say, ‘I have to create an opportunity for anybody whether you’re 18 or 80 to care about this issue.’” Feldmann said.  “So I think our job should be, “How do we create campaigns — giving or not — that allow everybody to express their interest, their desire to help others, but yet all participate in the same action as well.”

“Once we get past the interest stage, there are approaches that make us get involved more. If you’re a women’s empowerment organization we need to make a message that works across all that focuses on a belief statement like, ‘This is the year to make girls impossible to ignore. Are you in?’

“Does it mean it’s a millennial message? They created a message based on the belief statement that anybody can get attached to it. So that’s where I think we’ve got this challenge between is this a generational thing versus we’re in a new stage of how individuals get involved in social issues in our organizations.”

And that strategy fits in with the largest cultural change in philanthropy – addressing issues together – according to Feldman.

Helping supporters understand an issue is key. Building Tomorrow, a locally founded nonprofit that builds schools in Uganda, helps its constituency understand its educational issues. On the organization’s website is a tool that helps a person calculate the difference in cost between his or her education versus a student in Uganda.

“If you’re invested in helping constituents understand the issue, to get them active on other things, and then have those opportunities to act, you’re in a pretty good boat. That’s the approach that organizations need to look at,” said Feldmann.

Today with technology, involvement in social-good initiatives is easier because it helps remove barriers. Added to that is that millennials were born with these platforms, so it’s a natural progression, and they should be leading the charge.

“Even though the same premise of doing good is present in all generations, it is that you have the tools and the resources to act upon the impulse and the idea and the notion in this minute that you want to do good.  Are millennials rewriting philanthropy? I would say technology has allowed the general public to rewrite philanthropy.”

Technology, especially social media, can help take charitable giving to higher levels.

“If I wanted to ask a friend for money, I used to have to go walk over, share the envelope and say, ‘I’m riding in a bike-a-thon. Would you sponsor me?’” Feldmann said.

“Now, the greatest thing today is that we have a technology that allows me to do that. The same premise is still there. So the way that we interact with technology has really advanced the philanthropic opportunities we have.”

Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit that resettles refugees, is one nonprofit that uses technology to connect its mission to millennials. With chapters at universities, it has one of the largest millennial bases in the country. It takes $6,000 to resettle one refugee, and this fall’s online campaign raised $580,000 from 3,800 millennials.

“They are always focused on elevating the individual in all of the narratives. The individual changemaker,” Feldmann said.

United Way’s Herndon knows that crowdfunding is a tool to use when there is an incredible need and sense of urgency, and not for ongoing needs. However, while there hasn’t been a disaster in the area in a while, Herndon said they have a draft plan and the tools in place together if needed. His agency is part of a group of about 30 United Ways nationally that have co-invested in digital strategies over the past two years.

In addition, United Way is working on a cloud-based program in partnership with in San Francisco that will roll out this summer with some of its corporate partners. Basically an online philanthropy platform, it will allow individuals to manage all of their giving, volunteering and community interests. There will also be rich cause-related content.

But what’s not going to change, according to Feldmann, is sitting down with an individual and saying, “I’ve got an opportunity for you.

“That is never going to change. The person might have gotten to the table via technology, but I still have to use the practices I learned at the Fund Raising school to help you understand it and move forward.”

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