October 21, 2015; Crain’s New York Business and Christian Science Monitor

NPQ has taken an ongoing look at how millennials are reshaping charity and at the various schools of thought for targeting this demographic. Two recent articles provide another opportunity to look deeper at millennial philanthropy to determine whether all nonprofits should be developing strategies for this specific demographic.

Interest in millennials has gotten stronger as they move into their higher earning potential. According to this Crain’s New York Business article, millennial philanthropists are the “must-have item” this fundraising season: “Millennials are perceived as being more concerned with social issues than the ‘slacker’ generation before them and, as architects of the current dot-com boom, are wealthier, too. They are coming of age professionally just as baby boomers retire, and their tastes and actions are set to dictate the future of philanthropy.” This Christian Science Monitor article also composites a picture of a generous generation ready to get involved.

Together, both articles make an argument for a specific millennial fundraising strategy, but this may not be easy for every nonprofit, for a few reasons:

  1. Just because millennials are known to get involved in events or volunteer more doesn’t make it any easier to motivate them to do so.
  2. Just because millennials are tied to their phones doesn’t make them computer-savvy as a whole or automatically a tech guru.
  3. You could take many articles about boomers, substitute the word “millennial,” and get very similar advice (boomers like to volunteer, are skeptical and are “more responsive to newer media”).

This isn’t to say that millennials aren’t worth the fundraising trouble, but many nonprofits need to look at a range of issues before launching whole hog into a demographic strategy (also known as “generational fundraising” or “generational marketing”). Marketing budget, staff and volunteer numbers, strength of branding, degree of familiarity with online tools, age of board members, and mission are just some factors to consider. The nonprofits that Crain’s New York Business mentions have revenue in the millions and can afford this type of marketing. Imagine a nonprofit whose computer fleet is ten to fifteen years old and whose board members don’t really see the point of even having a website. These nonprofits have other things to worry about than simply “engaging millennials.”

Other models have been developed to address fundraising for the new millennium. The Networked Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine addresses how nonprofits should “ignite the passions” of enthusiasts in general instead of millennials in particular. A networked nonprofit is one that “leverages the power of social media to expand its network of supporters and thereby greatly increase its capacity and success.”

To figure out whether your nonprofit is ready to be networked, turn to the “Crawl, Walk, Run, Fly” model in Measuring the Networked Nonprofit (by Kanter and Katie Paine) to understand the very long process of reaching the networked ideal. As the authors point out, “Crawlers are not just smaller nonprofits; they include larger institutions that have all the basics in place but lack a social culture or are resisting transforming from a command-and-control style to a more networked mind-set. These nonprofits need to develop a basic communications strategy or program plan.”

For a huge swath of nonprofits, the age distinction needs to be contextualized in an overall commitment to new ways of fundraising. The zeal to court millennial philanthropists should be tempered with knowledge of how technology has an impact on all age groups. An enlightened approach to demographics would include an analysis of an organization’s ability to crawl, walk, run or fly through networkable spaces. There is a reason that Kanter and Fine didn’t call their book the “Millennial-Focused Nonprofit,” as networked models work beyond generational differences or the simple addition of “millennial philanthropist” to your list of must-have donors.—Amy Butcher