Philanthropy & Funding

Three Ways to Engage Millennial Donors

Nonprofits should offer a wider range of opportunities for donating, facilitating network building, and embracing the complexity of the social problems.

In 2004, I co-founded Spark, a nonprofit organization to support global women’s issues. Starting with six women in our 20s, Spark is now a network of 11,000 members and the largest network of millennial donors in the world. Over the past ten years we have raised more than $1.5 million in relatively small contributions, mostly less than $100. As Spark grew, The Women’s Funding Network, a group of more than 160 women’s foundations around the world—typically run by baby boomers—began to notice.

The leadership asked us for our secret sauce: How do we get more millennials involved in the women’s movement? The network was having trouble galvanizing them and, more specifically, getting them to open their wallets. Although research shows that close to 85 percent of millennials donate to nonprofit organizations, the majority of the network’s donors were much older.

Cultivating the next generation of donors is the lifeblood of the future of the women’s movement, or any nonprofit for that matter. SSIR contributors Derrick Feldman and Emily Yu, through a joint project of the Case Foundation and Achieve, have spent the last four years exploring how the millennial generation gets involved with and gives to social causes. As they highlight in their post, “Millennials and the Social Sector,” to be successful, nonprofits must cater to younger and older donors alike. But that’s a lot easier said than done.

The challenge is that older and younger donors approach activism in different ways. In the women’s movement, for example, while boomers protested in the streets to support Roe v. Wade, millennials raise their voices on the Internet, waging campaigns such as the recent digital takedown of the chairman and co-founder of athletic clothing company Lululemon, Chip Wilson. When Wilson blamed a faulty batch of see-through yoga pants on “women’s bodies,” thousands of young women went negative, hijacking the company’s Facebook page and tweeting their disgust about his comments, ultimately leading to a teary apology and his resignation. And while boomers spent decades fighting to promote feminism, even though 75 percent of millennial women think we need more change to achieve gender equality, the term “feminism” is controversial among many of the students I teach, who believe it has negative connotations. Even Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has said that while she believes in “equal rights” and that “women are just as capable,” she believes feminism itself is a “more negative word.”

So how do we unite to break through the generational differences and tensions, and harness millennials' participation? Here are a few of the lessons we have learned through Spark that can help nonprofit organizations appeal to millennial donors:

  1. Create various channels for engagement. Millennials want to see a variety of ways to get involved in an organization. When we ask Spark members why they join, they all say the same thing: They want to be involved. And yet when we dive deeper to understand what they mean by involvement, the answers run the gamut—from donating $10 to running a committee. Thus, we’ve created many opportunities for our members contribute. For example, a couple of years ago we supported an organization called Akili Dada, a leadership incubator for girls in Kenya. Spark members engaged with Akili Dada’s work in many ways: They organized and hosted a social entrepreneurship speaker series with the founder; they threw a cocktail party to raise scholarship money for Kenyan girls; they raised awareness about Akili Dada’s work by posting updates on Facebook and Twitter; and one member even offered his services, pro bono, to organize Akili Dada’s finances in QuickBooks. By providing a broad buffet of options for involvement, nonprofit organizations allow members to customize their participation, satisfying the millennial desire to get the hands-on experience they want.

  2. Develop networks. Millennials are pioneers of social networks for social change. They like to make their own decisions and take ownership over their results. Further research shows that 72 percent of millennials say that they are interested in participating in a nonprofit young professionals group, in large part to meet like-minded people their age. Creating networking opportunities is a win-win: it cultivates champions of the organization while also providing millennials the community and leadership opportunities they crave.

    So how does a nonprofit create a network for millennials to experience a more structured donor community? By facilitating the building of connections, both in-person and online. At Spark we host regular events—cocktail events, book clubs, speaker’s series, film screenings and committee meetings. These in-person interactions allow our members to feel like they are part of a cause that is bigger than themselves, a key millennial desire. We also have an extensive online presence, through Facebook, Twitter and wiki-sites, which provide additional touch points. As a result, we’ve been able to grow into a network of 11,000 members with just two staff people.

  3. Talk about multiple social issues. Millennials tend to be concerned about many social issues. When surveyed, young adults between the ages of 20-28 cited eight issues that they cared most about. This is in part because they perceive that the underlying causes of social problems are complex and that many problems are interrelated. It’s therefore crucial for nonprofits to address multiple issues and their interconnectedness. In the women’s movement, for example, this means thinking beyond traditional “women’s issues.” For Spark members, abortion rights are also about access to health care, poverty alleviation, and immigration rights. We prioritize funding organizations that take this interconnected approach to addressing the issues. Take the Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition, founded by young women ages 13-25 who joined forces to address the lack of quality, comprehensive, and youth-friendly sex education in their communities. They train peer health advocates who don’t just talk about the fight against HIV/AIDS, but also address the underlying gender, race, class, and poverty issues that put young girls in their communities disproportionately at risk for contracting the disease.

By offering a wider range of opportunities for donating, facilitating network building, and embracing the complexity of the social problems, nonprofit organizations will appeal more to millennials, harness millennials’ energy and skills more effectively, and do a better job of creating systemic and lasting change.

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  • BY Eric Foster

    ON July 17, 2014 01:58 PM

    Another very good piece on how to engage this very cause-oriented group, who at the same time are not wedded to the institutional.  They want quick social impact given their time and interests, tech versus meetings, events/programs and focused initiatives with some finality as opposed to giving ‘just because.’  I recall sharing with a pending CSR client that the best way they can engage millennials who are their customers that they want involved in the company’s decisions on what causes to direct the company’s money towards is not to identify the ‘organization’ in need per se but the social campaign that is formed (or can be formed) to address the social problem, provide them a social impact report (not an annual report) and move on the the next initiative.

  • Kathleen Kelly Janus's avatar

    BY Kathleen Kelly Janus

    ON July 21, 2014 02:04 PM

    Thanks, Eric.  I could not agree more!

  • Love this article. Thanks, Kathleen!

  • BY Paul Knudsen

    ON July 23, 2014 11:27 AM

    Very well stated. I know many folks at nonprofits who are trying to figure out this engagement strategy - how do you create meaningful, diverse channels for engagement without making a ton of new work for yourselves.

    I’ve found it helps me to start with what the organization already wants to accomplish, from the larger goals to small projects - are there ways that your community of supporters might help/participate?

    Recently, I’ve worked with a volunteer who knew of SFCASA through her college sorority, who lent her design talents to create our annual report. A professional writer wrote the copy for our gala auction lots, and a college business major coordinated a major part of the logistics of the gala. At the same time, the organization has several student interns. It has definitely been a learning experience that tests my management skills in many ways, and it sometimes feels easier to “just do it myself”, but it has also made my work a more rewarding experience personally.

    I’m confident the growing network we’re building, though modest at this point, will make a great impact on the future of the organization.

  • Kathleen Kelly Janus's avatar

    BY Kathleen Kelly Janus

    ON July 23, 2014 11:44 AM

    Paul, This is a really good point.  It is always such a push/pull when engaging volunteers as it is true that it is often much easier to just do it yourself.  Focusing on engaging volunteers in the projects that the organization already needs anyway, as opposed to creating new ones for the sake of it, is certainly the most effective engagement tool since it is a win-win for everyone involved.  At Spark we have also found that engaging our members as leaders to help manage certain volunteer projects can also be a really effective mechanism for engagement because it gives people more ownership over the results, thereby enhancing their loyalty to the cause/organization.  Love SFCASA, keep up the great work!

  • BY Joanne Ritter

    ON July 26, 2014 11:27 AM

    I’ve been dismayed by the negative reaction, lack of support, and misinformation surrounding feminism by millennials in online discussions. And then I remembered that when I was in my 20s, I didn’t want to be called a feminist either. I believed in feminism’s tenants, and admired and respected its leaders. Fact was, I didn’t want any label to define me. I, too, saw issues as complex and intertwined. I still feel the same today, but I no longer fear labels; I focus on solutions. Kudos to you on engaging millennials to get involved. We need everyones’ strengths to solve global problems and advance the cause of social justice.

  • BY kevin starr

    ON July 31, 2014 01:41 PM

    This is an important piece and topic.  Thanks.  A couple comments:

    In our experience, high-impact organizations need three things:

    1) it’s the oxygen they breathe, and it’s fungible
    2) high quality services: uncommon - requires pro bono people with the right skills and experience
    3) good advice: even more uncommon

    I loved the piece; here’s what I’d worry about.

    Multiple channels:  Most millennials - most people at large - don’t have the skills or experience be be useful to high-impact organizations.  To often, this is a distraction and source of unproductive extra work for the leaders and staff of those organizations.  Most worrisome is the reality that all that activity may create the illusion that something really valuable is happening when it’s not.  Our advice to organizations in general is to jettison all that engagement stuff unless they can clearly show that it will lead to money in the bank.

    Networks:  Much the same issue. Sure, they want to “feel like they are part of a cause that is bigger than themselves, a key Millennial desire,” but unless they doing something truly useful for that cause, who cares? 

    Multiple issues: Addressing multiple issues is usually a bad idea for an organization.  It’s hard to do more than one thing really well and it’s easy to lose focus.  Even when donors offer a lot of money to get organizations take on more issues, it’s still a bad idea. 

    Millennials can do - and drive real change with - all of that networking and involvement stuff that we ancients are often lousy at, but they should know a) how to tell a great organization from a not-so-great one (impact!), b) realize that in the end they have to create real value for great organizations and that mostly means driving money to them.  Talk is cheap and awareness is…just awareness.

    Thanks again for a really useful piece.


  • Kathleen Kelly Janus's avatar

    BY Kathleen Kelly Janus

    ON August 8, 2014 11:39 AM

    Kevin – I really appreciate your thoughts.  You certainly hit on a number of the challenges associated with millennial engagement.  Having run a nonprofit organization, I can speak from personal experience that many volunteers take more time than they give.  And we definitely have to be conscious of the difference between “feel good” and “real good” – at the end of the day, nonprofits need money in the bank so that they can affect real change on the social issues they address.

    At the end of the day awareness is indeed just awareness.  So the big question is how do we turn awareness into meaningful action (and dollars).  Millennials want to make a difference – so it is up to nonprofit organizations to both (a) educate them about the importance of driving money to nonprofit organizations, which is often the way that they can be most useful and (b) give them the opportunities to do so in a way that is both fulfilling for them and profitable for those organizations all at once.  This is something I do believe is worthy of staff time and effort.

    That said, there are also ways to engage Millennials that do not necessarily deplete precious staff time. Spark has engaged over 10,000 members with just 2 staff members.  The reason that we are able to do that is because Millennials crave leadership opportunities, and we have many supporters (board members, committee chairs, event coordinators) who volunteer their time to organize engagement opportunities for others (this also supports the millennial desire for community around giving back). I will talk about our Spark Champions program, which engages members in leadership roles to raise money for the organization, in an upcoming SSIR piece…stay tuned for that. 

    Regarding addressing multiple issues, you are absolutely right that an organization must stay on message.  But this is not mutually exclusive of addressing the complexity of the social problems that we face.  We are doing everyone a disservice if we don’t acknowledge the fact that there are a web of factors that lead to social injustice (i.e. an organization that focuses on “education” can’t escape the role that poverty, race and class play in preventing a level playing field).  This doesn’t mean that the organization needs to extend its mission, but talking about the complexity of the issue will resonate with Millennials in a more effective way.

    Thank you again for taking the time to respond.  I am glad that you are considering these issues so thoughtfully.

  • BY BabyBoomerWriter

    ON August 17, 2014 09:43 AM

    Look to the weeklong ALS donation campaign which just demonstrated how low key, friend, relative and colleague-based competitiveness drove a cause forward. Fundraisers included the personal story peripherally, depended on individual connections and launched a simple, upbeat way to participate that was seansonally appropriate. Relying on wireless connections and notable faces, they were able to engage contributors to give while having fun. I thought it was a byte-size tour d’force.

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