Understanding What Motivates Millennials to Give to Your NPO

“Wanna go to the mall?”

“Totes McGoats.”

What? That was my reaction when I heard a 20-something say that for the first time. When I was that age, going to the mall was “totally tubular.” For Boomers, it may have been “just swell” (if malls had existed then).

Understanding the new up-and-coming generation is a little like learning a new language—and I’m not just talking about deciphering their slang.

To be successful fundraisers, we need to understand how to communicate to our audience segments in order to make the right kind of ask. This has been true from generation to generation. And now with millennials coming of age, many of us nonprofit professionals are working to understand their giving potential and, more importantly, how to tap into it.

Did you know that as of 2017, millennials (or, Gen Y) have the largest buying power in the U.S.? Right now, baby boomers are a very close second in current buying power. Basically, this is because there are more millennials in the U.S. than any other age group.

To tap into that power, it’s crucial that we answer the question, “What motivates millennials to give?” Let me tell you straight up, the answer is not, “Your organization.”

I’m not saying that to be pessimistic—it’s simply the truth. Millennials care about issues, not organizations. According to the CEO of Achieve and researcher for The Millennial Impact Derrick Feldmann, “What motivates millennials is a desire to affect THEIR cause through YOUR organization with their friends.”

In a nutshell, to win the hearts (and money) of millennials, we need to help them understand our cause. And we need to do so in their language.

Here are five things a millennial would tell you as you work to connect and engage with the largest generation in American history.

1. “Talk to us on our terms and let us donate our time and money the way we’d like to.”

Let millennials participate in your cause—but don’t get in their way and restrict their capacity to do good. Maybe you have a framework or set of guidelines that you’ve always used for volunteers and donors and you expect them to work or give within those specific parameters. To get millennials involved, you don’t have to lose your framework, but you may have to allow for flexibility. If they want to volunteer or donate on their own terms, why not be cool with that if it ultimately accomplishes your mission? Why turn away something positive and impactful just because it’s not the way you’ve always done things?

A great example of an organization that’s figured this out is the St. Baldrick’s Foundation located in Monrovia, California. This nonprofit raises money for childhood cancer research and is most noted for their head-shaving events where participants ask for donations before they agree to, yes—have their locks shorn. Head-shaving events can be planned completely with the use of tools on their website, but they also allow volunteers to create their own type of fundraising event with their Do What You Want tool. This tool is exactly what it is says—it gives people who are passionate about their cause a way to raise funds by creating a different type of event. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s great! It gives more people a chance to rally around their cause without forcing them to do things “the way they’ve always been done.”

2. “Take advantage of our social clout—to be honest, we have more than you do.”

If you remember anything from this article, stick this in your back pocket: Millennials don’t give to organizations. They support causes. And since millennials typically live much of their lives connecting through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, they have the ability to influence hundreds if not thousands of their peers for your cause—if they’re passionate about it.

The takeaway for you? Tap into this power. Don’t use social media to sell your organization—use it to further your cause. Tell stories. Post pictures. Feature the people who’ve benefited from your services. Show where your organization’s money goes and how your donors’ gifts make a difference. If you can get the millennials to fall in love with your cause and become social media brand evangelists for you, you can unleash a potential firestorm of influence.

Your organization may not have a tremendous amount of social clout, but millennials do—and if they’re willing to donate a tweet about your cause or use their voice to speak to the masses about what you’re accomplishing, you’ve found yourself an effective way to use social media. Since millennial donors are more likely to give to a nonprofit if the request comes from a friend or family member, this type of word-of-mouth marketing can become highly effective.

3. “Encourage us to volunteer. That may be how we become your most loyal donors.”

In other words, create a pathway to a relationship—don’t rush in for the ask right away. Millennial philanthropists are broadening the definition of philanthropy to include not only financial gifts, but contributions of time or even influence, like I mentioned in the previous point. Keep this in mind when you think about looking for your next generation of donors. Volunteers often turn into consistent donors. However, you can’t expect them to be loyal if the only communication you send is your annual report. With millennials, it’s all about immersion—getting them in the door, then keeping them excited about your cause with consistent engagement and communication.

Relationships are important to millennials. Remember, these kids grew up with 24/7 connectivity—to friends, to brands, basically to the world. So approaching them with a blatant ask for money right away may turn them off and send them in search of an organization that’s more interested in engaging with them on a deeper, more consistent level. Again, this generation is all about issues and causes. You have to establish a connection between them and your mission before you can expect them to open their wallets.

4. “We donate like we buy—impulsively.”

When I was growing up, if I heard a song on the radio I wanted to buy, I had to run down to the record store and get the cassette tape. Millennials can’t even relate. If they hear a song they like, they download it. Instantly. Or stream it. If they see a cool gadget they need, they head to Amazon and get free two-day shipping. That’s the world we all live in now, but this is all millennials know—it’s how they grew up. If they want something, they get it. Boom. They’re used to purchasing impulsively. This translates over into how they give. They donate when they’re inspired to donate—and as such, it’s going to behoove you to be ready.

Younger givers tend to gravitate toward online donations, but remember that many are accessing websites via smartphones, so it’s crucial that your website be optimized for mobile. Don’t make people pinch and zoom in order to find your Donate button on their mobile device. Also, event fundraising and recurring giving programs can work as important giving methods for this generation as well—they’re easy ways to give. Typically, the younger the donors, the greater the number of ways they give. Since you don’t know when inspiration will strike, your best bet is to be prepared and make it as easy as possible for them to donate

5. “Stay in touch. We want to know where our money went and what kind of impact it has. An annual holiday card won’t do.”

Here’s where too many NPOs drop the ball where millennials (and frankly, donors in general) are concerned, and I fully understand that it takes more work to stay engaged—but you have to. You’re not going to be able to satisfy this generation’s need for information and connection with an annual report. These guys want to know where their money went. What kind of impact did it make? Did their donation make a difference?

Take TOMS Shoes, for example. They’re not a nonprofit, but they’ve struck a chord with the millennials who buy up these shoes like crazy. Why? Because they state explicitly what happens when a customer buys a pair of shoes: A new pair of shoes will be given to a child in need. One for one. There’s no question about how it works.

Take that model and apply it to your organization. How can you show donors the direct impact that their dollars have? You’ll win over this younger crowd much more quickly with transparent, clear and consistent communication than you will with a confusing annual giving report.

Learn ways to thank them, inform them and re-engage with them often. They value relationships. They’re used to staying connected. And they’re loyal to causes that they’re passionate about. Stay in touch with these young philanthropists, empower them to become agents of change for your organization, and you may reap big lifetime rewards from this generation.

There’s much more to learn about this up-and-coming generation, and I’m excited to tell you that MCON 2017 will focus on just that this June in Washington, D.C. It’s a conference focused on The Millennial Impact and research that’s been done on what motivates this generation to connect, involve and give to causes. We’ll also be hosting our own conference, Cause Camp.

We’re looking forward to hearing from Derrick Feldmann, an expert on this topic, and others who know the millennial generation up close and personal. Stay tuned! We’ll have much more to share with you in March.

  • “Millennials don’t give to organizations. They support causes.” Does that effect organizational loyalty, too? I wonder if millennials are less loyal than boomers, or if their loyalty simply looks different.

    • Randy Hawthorne

      I believe that millennials can be an incredibly loyal bunch. You just need to be mindful to continue to foster the relationship and show that they’re doing good through your organization. It’s just important to let them know about what you’re trying to accomplish and not focus on the “we” but the “what.”

  • Marguerite McCurry

    this is one of the best set of facts I’ve seen on this topic…THANK YOU! I’ve been preaching this for a year…nice to have some backup!

    • Randy Hawthorne

      Thank YOU. I’m glad this is helpful for you.

  • Jay Wilkinson

    Great insight.

    • nphub

      Thanks for reading!

  • Briana Flake

    We have a gofundme account set up for our daughter Hailey she’s about a month old now and was born with a huge mass on her neck we just recently lost our car and my husband list his job that provided insurance for our sweet girl she is still in the hospital in Birmingham Alabama which is 6 hours away from us. We have no way to see her and her medical expenses are racking up. If there is anyway you could spread the word to her cause me and my husband would greatly appreciate it. We have been share our post for it but we need someone with more media power to help us. Please if you could just help our cause by getting the word out there we would be eternally grateful!

  • Amber Alter

    Great article! I was wondering if you could share some of the resources that you used to understand the giving behaviors of millennials. I am trying to convince my organization to focus more on the millennial demographic and they are very data-driven. Any links to research in this field would be awesome. Thanks!

  • Kat

    Hi! I second Amber Alter’s comment about sources — would love to use in a presentation I’m putting together. Please let us know if you could share.

  • gwen

    I like the angle of your article but as a millennial, I find people often clump us together with large assumptions that are far from true. I was born in 1990 and surely remember what life was like before streaming, Amazon and instant gratification for anything I please. The millennial generation is anyone born after 1980, so anyone born up to 10 years before me remembers these things as well and probably much more. I remember when being on the internet would make your phone line busy, I remember dial-up internet and the first generation of iPods. Millennials are a larger group than many people think, so don’t assume all we know is instant buying and gratification.

  • Shay LePew

    Really great article! I agree with gwen about point #4 – Me and most millennials I know don’t buy impulsively, unless it’s super cheap, free or food.