I’ve studied how millennials engage with nonprofits and social causes for more than 10 years—a decade in which young leaders have revolutionized cause engagement. The way young America today approaches injustices is unlike that of their parents’ generation, and not just because technology and social media have given these digital natives new tools. There’s been a paradigm shift in what cause engagement means and how social change can be achieved.
Much of what my research colleagues and I have learned about millennials dictates that nonprofits and causes need to shift their mindset, too. That shift means nonprofits need to both embrace (or at least accept) new ways of thinking about what engagement means and also create new practical approaches in the areas of fundraising, participation, and communications. Here are three of the most important traits to consider when creating your millennial outreach and giving strategies:
1. Millennials engage and give to causes to help others, not to strengthen institutions.
Loyal donors are a thing of the past. Millennials who care about a social issue have many avenues by which to show their support. If they become dissatisfied with the way one nonprofit is addressing education, for instance, they can and will support another cause. They’re not limited to nonprofits though—these days, it’s even more likely they will start fundraising for a specific school or lobbying on behalf of a political candidate who agrees with their views.
In other words, millennials need to know how they can help through you, not for you. This means you must show young leaders that they can make a bigger difference to the people they care about by working through you.
Become their platform for gathering, connecting, and taking action. Focus on how lucky and grateful you are that donors choose your organization as a conduit to help others, and be sure to clearly articulate the impact their support makes possible. In the end, nonprofits succeed (or fail) to the degree that they enable donors to feel, witness, and experience the impact their work has on others and not how it benefits the organization. Create opportunities for your millennial constituency to create their own story about the issue, sign petitions for the cause, and organize giving campaigns. Then utilize your organization’s platform to elevate their approach and success.
2. Millennials view all their assets as having equal value.
This generation does not prize being a financial donor above being a volunteer, or activating their peer network over signing a petition. Youth today believe their time, skills, talent, money, voice, purchasing power, and networks all have equal value. When inspired to act, they see their behavior (no matter what it is) as significant support.
Traditionally, nonprofits have focused on moving supporters from passive to active participation. You can’t expect millennials to act that way. They engage in causes at various levels—some remain at micro involvement, some move to leadership roles, and many move within the space in between. It’s crucial not to underestimate the impact of any level of involvement, since research has proven that individual millennials acting in small ways often create leverage as a large, active group capable of influencing great change.
Causes should consider developing new types of activities that value all types of support, and that leverage this group’s propensity to form groups as the way to lead them to deeper engagement. And young leaders today love to work in teams: they’re inherently social. Small group and cohort engagement is a key tactic in building affinity. But beware trying to assign them busy work instead of true opportunities for leadership and impact. Allow millennials to create their own program in which you are the beneficiary rather than prescribing the action they have to take for you.
3. Millennials are influenced by the decisions and behaviors of their peers.
I led a research study recently that asked how young adults first heard about the largest and most popular social movements of the past couple of years: #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the Women’s March. The top two answers were “I acted on my own” and “A peer/friend told me.” Moreover, a peer or friend was one of the top two ways these same millennials heard about the social issues they consider to be most important: civil rights, college/post-secondary education, education, literacy, mental health, poverty, sexual orientation-based rights, women’s health, and women’s rights.
Millennials trust people like themselves more than nonprofits, government, and business. Your organization, then, should act as a peer. Be part of the conversation surrounding an issue, but don’t dominate it; you can make your voice heard without having to lead the effort. For example, consider implementing a content rule in your social media posts: at least half your posts should not be about your organization, impact, or needs, but rather about the issue you’re focused on. By promoting other organizations and events, sharing relevant research, reports, and articles, and amplifying other leaders in the space you can establish yourself as a trusted resource and pillar within your field.
The bottom line: Millennials are passionate about social issues and want to improve the world, with or without nonprofits. To stay viable, your nonprofit must figure out how to be relevant and how to add value to a millennial supporter’s involvement. Treat giving as an act of support combined with other actions that lead to 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, an advisory firm focused on helping companies and causes bolster their social good initiatives by informing through research, guiding through strategy, and connecting through new partnerships. He also founded and is the lead researcher on the Millennial Impact Project, a multiyear study of how the next generation of supporters and consumers engage with causes.