I am often warning nonprofits looking to engage young people against putting too much emphasis on giving and social media. Research I have led has shown—and continues to show—that while your next generation of supporters donate and use social media to engage with causes, these are not the actions they view as most influential. Let’s zoom out a bit so you can see the big picture and appreciate the context behind this point.
Social issues have been in the spotlight lately, thanks in part to the involvement of Young Americans (ages 18-30). In the process, leaders within this group discovered they could bring big numbers and voices together to demand a better life for everyone.
Young Americans work to fix societal problems as they define them, without waiting for anyone else’s approval or participation. In fact, nonprofits struggle to fit them and their new methods into traditional categories. Are these young people donors, volunteers, or both? Or do nonprofits perceive them as not yet worthy of attention because of their youth?
Today, the industry is still trying to understand and recognize the role Young Americans play in social change. Meanwhile, this highly active group—to borrow one of their popular methods of involvement—keeps marching on.
It’s a Brand New (Giving) World
All the studies on philanthropy today reinforce one thing: Giving is not the same as it was even a few years ago. The challenge is to ensure your nonprofit isn’t the same, either.
At the very least, five basic tenets of giving have seen enormous shifts. The first four are from a 2018 Institute of Policy Studies report:
- Giving from the middle class and below is declining. This naturally includes Young Americans, who are still in their early earning years.
- Faith and religion are not necessarily tied to congregational giving. Historically, these have been two primary drivers of philanthropy. People today aren’t necessarily going to a church, synagogue, mosque, or other entity where they give.
- Inaction today can be a deliberate action. There’s a misconception that young people who choose not to act are apathetic. To Young America, deciding to do nothing—what we call “conscious inaction”—is far from apathy. It’s a thoughtful and deliberate choice, viewed by many as being just as valuable as action. Along the same lines, Young Americans may give for the purpose of fighting against something rather than to support something.
- Institutions are not the sole repository of giving anymore. Young America is more likely to directly support a friend with cancer through peer fundraising than through a national cancer group. Similarly, another research study I led showed that if young adults perceive an entity as inauthentic, they won’t hesitate to take their support where they believe it will be more effective and appreciated.
And the final point emerges from research that found what we thought would happen with historical markers such as education and giving in fact did not occur:
- Higher education no longer predicts giving. Historically, the more educated you were, the more you gave. Today, Young America is the most educated generation we’ve ever known, and they give the least.
To reach Young America in light of all these changes, nonprofits need to change, too. Just as this audience cannot be pushed into past categories, neither can they be spoken to in the old ways.
Act Now: Young America Isn’t Waiting
Here are two important actions you can take right now to engage Young Americans:
- Recognize that your supporters aren’t your fans; they are believers in a cause; and
- Move out of the spotlight; instead of positioning your nonprofit as a leader on your issue, frame your work as fighting alongside your supporters to effect change.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these points.
Supporters Are Believers in a Cause, Not Fans
In most nonprofits, departments are structured around particular (and long-standing) areas of constituent involvement. We have volunteer coordinators, corporate donor managers, major gift officers, membership managers, and so on. For example, most nonprofits still keep development functions separate from marketing and communications.
The problem with this approach today is that Young America doesn’t view itself in these categories; most members of the general public don’t even identify themselves as “donors.” Moreover, the donor engagement studies and millennial research I’ve been involved in show that people don’t donate out of institutional loyalty. Instead of supporting an organization, young people support a cause or issue, with the goal of improving the lives of others, even if they don’t know them.
For example, when Young Americans march wearing pink hats or don mustaches for a month, they are taking action and exhibiting tangible displays of how they feel about the people affected by an issue. What their actions are not are displays of how they feel about an organization.
When your nonprofit says things like, “Derrick, it would be great if you could show your support by tweeting and liking what we’re doing,” they’re not speaking to my belief in equality for women or support for men dealing with prostate cancer. Instead, they’re asking me to applaud their organization—and I’m not likely to be moved. Nor are the millions of young leaders just like me.
Nonprofits today need to reorganize themselves around the principal of belief. Marketers, fundraisers, volunteer coordinators, and all other public-facing staff must consistently and seamlessly work together. Managers must ensure an environment of teamwork rather than competition for donors/members/subscribers, and the entire team should be using the same basic messaging.
Which brings us to the next point:
Fight Alongside Your Supporters to Effect Change
Always remember: The supporter of your movement is a critical driving force of change.
I discussed in a previous article how nonprofits must show young supporters that they’re more effective when they work with you. Again, Young Americans don’t engage out of institutional loyalty. They believe in something—eliminating hunger, rescuing animals—and they’ll go wherever they think their efforts will be most effective.
How do you make sure they perceive that your nonprofit is where they can do the most good? Show and tell them how their involvement moves us closer to that next milestone:
- If your nonprofit delivered rescued food to hungry families, talk about how little Jerry’s dad could grill hamburgers for the first time in months, and about how Jerry’s family didn’t go to bed hungry last night, “Thanks to you.”
- If you save pets for adoption, show a happy Spot with a happier Susan, one of the 15 new pet parents last week “You made possible.”
- If you run a reuse and recycling center, produce a video showing pieces of plastic rising out of a now-clean ocean to become a chair that ends up in a home, office, or classroom; “Part of the 1,200 pounds of trash you helped keep out of our waterways this month.“
Aim at potential supporters’ emotions; that’s what moves people to action. Illustrate the opportunities they have to enact true and meaningful social change. Keep the focus off of what your organization does; in fact, put your nonprofit’s name and logo at the bottom or the end of your message. Remember, you are the conduit; supporters and beneficiaries are the important components of the relationship.
The Bottom Line
Young Americans don’t view money and traditional philanthropy as methods for making real social change. Just as today’s cause supporters have many repositories for giving, young people have many methods for participating in an issue.
Mere participation doesn’t necessarily mean support, though. Nonprofits must speak directly and authentically to Young America’s beliefs to have any hope of converting them to highly active supporters, and, in the future, financial donors. These young adults passionately care about those less fortunate and deeply believe in their own power to make life better for them. We must try to reach out to them where they are, with methods they respect and trust.
Derrick Feldmann is a speaker, researcher, and advisor for cause engagement and social good. He is author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change and co-author of Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement. Feldmann serves as the managing director of INFLUENCE|SG, a firm focused on helping companies and causes bolster their social good initiatives through research, strategy, and partnerships. He leads the research initiative Cause and Social Influence and founded and led the Millennial Impact Project, a decade-long study of how the next generation of supporters and consumers engage with causes.