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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