A Peek Inside the Millennial Mind

How do you engage millennials in your nonprofit? Here’s a peek into the millennial mind when it comes to social change efforts.

A Peek Inside the Millennial Mind
6 mins read

Tips to better engage the next generation of supporters for your organization.

What if you could have a young person sit in front of your board and authentically share their viewpoint about your social issue and cause? What would they say, and how can you learn from it to better engage the next generation of supporters for your organization?

Creating such an opportunity has been our goal for the last 10 years. Now, 150,000 millennials later, we know the conversation would go something like this:

1. Everything I have to offer is equally valuable to me.

Whether it’s my money, time, what I am good at, or even my friends, I don’t consider one more significant than the other—and I don’t want you to, either. I may not have $5,000 to give right now, but I have a lot of other ways I can help what you’re working on.

2. I’m creating change every day. Are you?

I share about causes on social media. I give to friends’ fundraisers. I donate used clothes and do 5K walks. I choose reusables. Being involved in issues is in my DNA. What have you done lately? Don’t just talk to me about abstract goals; give me a short-term win to help you meet your next milestone.

3. I believe in activism.

Waiting for things to change doesn’t work. We have to be ready to get out there and march, vote, petition, and do whatever it takes to shift the status quo. Sometimes we have to help others understand the big issue—money and volunteering don’t do that.

4. I care about issues, not your organization.

I get involved in lots of causes—to find a cure for cancer or get guns off the streets—but I’m not as concerned about supporting specific organizations. I go anywhere where I see the opportunity to make a difference. So, the bigger question is, why should I work with you when I can do good on my own?

5. My voice is powerful.

When millennials join forces, we can get companies to change the way they do business, pressure politicians to change laws, and tell America they should pay attention to an issue. What are you working on that my voice can help manifest?

6. I focus on the problems and the people affected—even if I am not directly impacted. I care little about which side of politics you are on.

I’m so over partisan bickering! It’s getting us nowhere. Let’s keep our eyes on who needs help and what needs to change and come together to make it happen. What are you doing with other partners to address the issue? Remember I don’t really care what kinds of entities you collaborate with (companies, cause, government, faith); I care that you are out there doing work with others.

7. We are more than just social. We’re doers.

Older people tend to put us in a box, as though without our phones and social media, we’re unable to express ourselves. To see the reality, all you have to do is look at the events we’ve created to raise support for causes and the organizations we now lead. What can I do to move your work forward and help you realize something positive for an individual that needs help, besides just giving money?

8. My support is big and small. Does it matter?

I devoted a whole day to a protest, and I almost thoughtlessly “rounded up” to make a tiny donation at a thrift store. Like I said, change is in my DNA, so you may not even notice some of my actions. But to me, they’re all important. How are you recognizing my contributions, both big and small, direct and as amplified through my network?

If you could get inside a millennial’s mind, this is what you’d see and hear. Stop thinking about how you categorize millennials from the outside. Get into their heads, speak the language they want to hear, and lean in and watch the activation unfold!

This article is based on the nation’s largest body of millennial research, culminating in the latest (and final) report of the Millennial Impact Project, a joint venture by the Case Foundation and research teams I’ve led. Download Understanding How Millennials Engage With Causes and Social Issues: Insights From 10 Years of Research Working in Partnership With Young Americans on Causes Today and in the Future today.

About the Author

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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. 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. His chapter Moving Millennials to Act appears in the newly released 2nd edition of Nonprofit Management 101.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

2 thoughts on “A Peek Inside the Millennial Mind

  1. I waited for a few days to see if others replied to this (and to see if my first-read-reaction changed). The information seems spot-on on how we “older folks” perceive millennials (including my own adult children). I also recognize that the goal of the article is to foster engagement of this younger generation, not to antagonize them.

    However, (and even after re-reading the article a few times), I find the millennial perspective rather arrogant and self-righteous and narrow-minded. Particularly because the vast majority of millennials lack the experience, education, and maturity needed to draw the conclusions they carry around with them, I find it frustrating that the rest of us are expected to change our message or presentation so that we are “worthy” of their time and talents.

    If the millennial in front of you walks away because you cannot meet their high and righteous standards – don’t chase them down, because you are forever going to be justifying your existence to them.

    Instead, when confronted by the pure ideals of the young and inexperienced and when challenged by them to a standard that is more complicated to achieve than can be explained in an elevator speech, we should encourage *them* to interpret, understand, and suggest ways to achieve our mission in a way that meets their standards as well as acknowledges the real challenges of achieving any nonprofit mission. (I’m a fan of the Socratic method as a teaching tool.)

    I’m not suggesting this as a “gotcha” trap to point out the silliness that sometimes accompanies the ideals of the young, but rather, I submit that encouraging the younger generation to take a minute to learn the world of the nonprofit in front of them and work collaboratively to develop a way for millennial goals to be aligned with the nonprofit mission (without unnatural contortions of either), might improve their understanding of the complexities inherent in most nonprofits and provide a communication bridge to facilitate the investment (of millennial time and talents) into your nonprofit organization.

  2. I think the commentary about the idealism of millennials is a misunderstanding. As a millennial, and an Executive Director of a non-profit, I certainly understand that idealism isn’t everything, or more specifically, that to achieve idealistic goals, we must do some down and dirty grunt work.

    I think what this article is saying, and what I agree with, is that millennials are not interested in the status quo. We have seen the middle-ground strategies, that don’t rock the boat, make little to no change.

    I also think it’s a misunderstanding to consider those younger than you “inexperienced.” I’ve experienced life-changing losses of family members, survived assaults, lost friends to death, been face to face with white supremacists who want to hurt me and those around me, turned a $100,000 organization into a $500,000 organization in 3 years, picked up human waste, protested, managed personnel, negotiated contracts, fallen in love, watched birds, etc.

    I’m 27.

    I deeply respect my elders, and what they have to pass on to me, but I expect respect of my knowledge and experience as well. I do not think less years of life devalues our experiences or our knowledge, or that younger people can’t. We have teenagers, not millennials, leading the climate change movement, trying to literally save the world, because they have witnessed the strategies of generations older than them and how those strategies have failed.

    Maybe I do sound idealist, but I put in the work to achieve these ideals. I make the sacrifices, whether it be personal, professional or political, to improve the world we live in. I’m not alone in that.

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