What do Millenials view as “social change” and, more importantly, do they believe any of the actions they take—from giving or volunteering, to voting and activism—make more of an impact than others? More importantly, how can you use this information to create engagement pathways for this generation that move your cause forward? Young adults, especially since the 2016 election, are redefining how we understand engagement in social change, so let’s look at the data and figure out what your nonprofit can do about it.
For the most part, researchers have assumed that if an individual takes an action, they must believe it will lead to change. Yet when we ask young people whether they believe their action will mean anything for the cause or the people they’re trying to help, the response is quite intriguing. Giving and volunteering are viewed as much less likely to create change than actions such as voting, attending marches/rallies, and even signing petitions. (Millennial Impact Report 2017)
Does this mean young people are performing actions even though they don’t believe they’ll make a difference? Yes. And it means nonprofits like yours need to engage them in other ways beyond just giving and volunteering. Don’t get me wrong, these are both worthwhile actions, but focusing exclusively on them means missing the chance to more deeply engage a generation that wants to move an issue forward to the next milestone.
As an organization, you can use this information to create an engagement pathway for Millennials. Here are four things about that pathway (and engagement in general) you must learn first to be effective, what I call the tenets of engagement that every cause must consider at every touchpoint:
Tenet 1. Path of Least Resistance
In just about any situation, the brain’s natural inclination is to take the easy route. When you’ve piqued an individual’s empathy, they feel like they should do something—so they perform a small, passive action in support of the cause to satisfy this need and “feel good.”
Tenet 2. Others Believe Like Me
People like to know that others believe in the same cause or social issue they do. Although their initial expression of interest in a cause is a solo activity, young people want companionship in supporting the issue before getting further involved. This companionship, online or offline, encourages the individual in their belief.
Tenet 3. Reinforcement of Belief
As the Millennial feels the support of others for what they believe in, they perform deeper actions over time to reinforce that belief. As they continue to act, the experiential learning and knowledge attainment keep the social issue top of mind. Individuals ultimately internalize the issue and accept it as part of who they are.
Tenet 4. Self-Organizing to Spread Belief
We all have a need to build a crowd of like-minded believers. After someone internalizes your issue, they begin to self-organize and bring others closer to the cause. Their approaches to this are based on individual narratives and storytelling, rather than institutional interests.
To effectively engage Millennials, nonprofits must design programs that adhere to the above tenets of engagement. How do you accomplish this? By starting simple and easy, and then more deeply engaging young supporters over time, which can be done by incorporating the following five major milestones to engagement and movement building:
Engagement Pathway Milestone 1: Committing
You need the Millennial to commit to your issue and beliefs, so publicly seek their support through a small call to action, such as a post asking them to agree with a statement. The outcome is alignment and agreement that the issue is important, and while some may try to dismiss this as “slacktivism,” on the contrary, it’s a key step to showing others like them they’re committed to making change happen for the cause.
Engagement Pathway Milestone 2: Understanding
Now that they’ve committed to your issue, they need to better understand it, as outcomes will arise only from comprehension. Provide short bursts of educational, informative content; avoid using statistics and data, which dehumanize and depersonalize your issue. Find creative ways to prompt involvement. For instance, share the five key learnings that every constituent believes/knows. Go beyond the “did you know” type of question and instead use one-question, immediate-results surveys and quizzes that ask people to fill in the blanks. Have others like them share what’s happening on the issue from their local perspective. Allowing them to actively learn and share helps individuals find like-minded peers.
Engagement Pathway Milestone 3: Sharing
Having people, especially Millennials, share their commitment with others reinforces their own belief and helps them find others who believe as they do. Suggest simple social media campaigns or DIY offerings, such as small friend or peer-group events. Help your emerging supporters to spread their enthusiasm among their inner circles.
Engagement Pathway Milestone 4: Participating in Campaigns
Offer campaigns, milestones, and key short-term opportunities in which individuals will help the cause reach a particular goal. You want them to realize that your nonprofit is a great pathway to impact and social change, with immediate or at least quick results so they can get hooked. For example, if you’re a refugee resettlement organization, provide a clearly connected opportunity to support a refugee family through quick and easy actions. Giving can be part of it, such as a $10 campaign or a small group appeal. The outcome here is to let individuals feel a social impact win.
Engagement Pathway Milestone 5: Self-Organizing
Provide tangible support to organizers and top-tier activists. Create and make available resources (sample social media posts, informational fliers, meeting agendas, letters to government representatives, etc.) and package them in toolkits for easy implementation. Organize a day for individuals who share beliefs to come together to meet each other and share event ideas and experiences.
Of course, not everyone will reach every step, but this pathway provides a clear blueprint for increasing engagement. Just like people of all ages—but more so given how interconnected they are due to social media and other technologies—Millennials are driven by the human need for connection. Young Americans today get caught up in the need to exude their passions and beliefs, and they have a strong desire to support friends and family.
Effective nonprofits begin relationships by making emotional connections. The key to growth with the next generation is to continue to deepen that connection by creating a clear pathway to increasingly bigger milestones that promotes sharing and peer recruitment, underpinned with immediate and real-time social change.
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.