Millennial Donors: Thoughts for the Future of Fundraising
In a recent speaking tour about annual giving in the U.S., I warned that the coming fiscal year and beyond could be impacted by millennial giving patterns. Although not central to my argument about annual giving in the 2021-22 academic year, the behavior of millennial giving never fails to raise questions. As a millennial myself, and as an advancement practitioner in independent schools, I have observed firsthand distinct differences in millennial giving compared to Gen X or Baby Boomers. A recent report from the Case Foundation gives shape to what we have all sensed and understood for years. More than what many of us have presumed to be financial insecurity (no wonder, when many of us graduated from college and graduate school into a recession), millennials have a fundamentally different relationship to philanthropy than older generations.
According to The Millennial Impact Report; 10 Years, Looking Back, there are several key factors that distinguish millennial attitudes toward giving, and two of which are particularly resonant for independent schools. As a schools community and as individual institutions, we will have to reckon with these sooner than later. In addition to making up a significant portion of your alumni base, millennials have children in or applying to your lower schools. We have to set a strategy now that will encourage long-term giving, or we set ourselves up for disaster as our older, loyal donors age out of our communities.
Millennials engage with causes, not institutions
"Millennial donors are not committed to a single organization; they are more committed to a cause. So, their loyalty is to an issue they care about or are passionate about. And whether they give money or volunteer, it's not necessarily directed at one organization.” (Justin Wheeler, Millennial Impact Report)
Moreover, according to this report, “millennials are supporting five nonprofits a year on average.” Far from the selfish, disengaged generation we were previously thought to be, millennials are giving often and generously, but without the kind of single-organization loyalty of older counterparts. Therefore, we can reasonably expect that millennials will give to our schools, either as parents or alumni, but that the available disposable income they do have will be split an average of five ways before a school’s advancement offices receives a donation.
The question, then, that school’s must grapple with is whether to adjust fundraising expectations accordingly, given that millennials will make up a key demographic within the next 10 years, or whether to attempt to convince millennials to streamline their giving rather than spread it thin.
The answer to that question is informed by this statistic as well; 90 percent of respondents to the Millennial Impact Report suggested they are motivated by a compelling mission, not an organization. This is challenging for independent schools. Our missions, on average, are not overly emotional or compelling. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good missions, but they do tend to be the same no matter the school. We all use words like “engagement, community, intellectual curiosity, leadership, excellence, integrity,” or we discuss some form of “whole-child” education.
As millennials become parents, these words might resonate more than they do as mere alumni of our schools, but perhaps not to the degree we would hope. It is incumbent upon us to formulate missions and visions that are highly emotional and compelling and that suggest a cause behind which millennial donors will rally. The former marketer in me is dumbfounded (if I’m honest!) as to how to accomplish this task; how many ways are there to describe or envision an independent education? Nevertheless, it’s a question we’ll have to answer, and soon.
Millennials see all assets as equal: time, money, network
In each of the studies summarized in this report, millennials have expressed or demonstrated the belief that their time, skills, talent, money, voice, purchasing power, and ability to network all have equal value, and they offer them as such. This generation does not prize being a financial donor above being volunteer, or activating their peer network as more valuable than signing a petition. When they are inspired to do something, they see their behavior (no matter what it is) as significant support. (Millennial Impact Report, 6)
The above has serious implications for our work in schools and the way we practice our craft. It might mean that millennial parents who volunteer as room parents or on the parents’ association feel they are making the same contribution to the school as writing a significant check. Therefore, we need to formulate volunteer recruitment strategies and fundraising campaigns that consider the constituent’s assumption that both gifts to the school – time and money – are equal in value.
In the past, we have recruited volunteers to first engage them with the work in hopes that the engagement would turn into a gift. What happens to that strategy when a millennial volunteer feels as though the engagement is the gift? Remember that millennials are in many ways the DIY generation. Entering adulthood during the global financial crisis meant that even those from affluent backgrounds didn’t necessarily have cashflow or the types of jobs they would have otherwise expected.
In our 20s, we followed fashion bloggers or DIY renovation feeds not out of an obsession with the internet, but because they allowed us luxury for less. We were facing a financial reality unlike our parents’, and we would have to be careful with our investments. Now, in our 30s and with decent jobs, that mentality doesn’t leave us easily. It is very easy for an alumnus/a of your school or a parent to see their “leadership” (in terms of thinking, organization, strategy, etc.) as being just as important as their money. It is up to us as advancement leaders to communicate that we need both in order for the school to thrive into the future.
These two points, among others from the report, present much for us to consider as we move ahead into a new era of advancement and the way we communicate our impact on future generations. We need to be prepared ahead of the curve, or we risk losing potential donors in the process.
For more on millennial giving and assumptions, please download the Millennial Impact Report, 2020, from the Case Foundation.
About the author(s)
Ann Snyder is the director of independent and international schools at CASE.