Embracing a great generation: Millennials

Last week I had coffee with a Millennial-aged friend and she shared a story about a philanthropy panel she had recently attended. With dismay, she recalled how the panelists—all from local non-profits—commented negatively about Millennials’ engagement in their communities, rattling off the many clichés that exist about her generation: inherent narcissism, entitlement, immaturity, laziness, and short attention spans.

Let’s pretend for just a moment that these panelists, instead of maligning Millennials, had said similar things about Gen-Xers, Baby Boomers, or Traditionalists. Can you imagine a non-profit leader sitting on a panel and speaking poorly of the personality traits of “Albert and Edna Olson” or any prospective donors from a “more senior” age bracket? Absolutely not! It would be totally crazy to talk about a group of your donors—or your prospective donors—that way.

Yet, we often do it—with little second thought—about Millennials. Why?

I believe too many of us are quick to buy into the over-generalization that Millennials, as a group, are “less likely to volunteer without perks,” “less likely to give,” and “less likely to stay engaged.” I believe we choose to buy into these ideas because it’s easier than figuring out how to provide meaningful opportunities, how to meet them where they are on their philanthropic journeys, and how to cultivate authentic, long-term relationships with them.

Without remarking on all the positive traits of Millennials I know, here’s a quick reminder for all of us: the oldest Millennials are turning 36 this year! They may very well be mid- and even senior-level executives in your community. They may already be your mid-level donors, and some could easily turn into your major donors in the future. But they certainly won’t be if we think of—and refer to—them as “less than” in intellect, generosity, and work-ethic. In fact, I guarantee that my friend left the panel she attended with no plans to donate to those charities who were represented.

So what’s missing from this dialogue? A quick Google search will pull up thousands of articles on “best practices for engaging with Millennials.” The key word here is engaging. You have to be willing to engage, and also to recognize that this engagement may look totally different from how you engage with Albert and Edna.

While you might visit with Albert and Edna over a piece of pie and black coffee at Perkins, you’ll visit with Hailee and her business partner, Morgan, over a craft beer at the brewery next door to their new boutique clothing store.

While Albert and Edna wish to check in over the phone when they return from wintering in Arizona, Hailee and Morgan might drop in once a month to help merchandise your donation-based clothing closet and directly engage with your clients.

It’s most likely true that Albert and Edna may be able to write a check for thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of dollars and attend your annual gala, while Hailee and Morgan may—at the present time—only donate in-kind product. However, Hailee and Morgan may also be the ones who throw a special shopping event at their store for 50 of their closest Millennial friends, and donate the proceeds back to your organization.

You get the idea.

All generations volunteer, and give, and stay engaged long-term if we meet them where they are. But we must build authentic relationships and provide them with meaningful ways to get involved. The way each generation practices philanthropy simply changes—sometimes slightly, and other times more dramatically. (And, if we’re being honest, Albert and Edna didn’t make $1,000 donations when they were 25, either.)

Beautiful things happen when changes occur in the demographics of your donor base. You learn new languages for giving. You learn new ways to give. You learn new ways to receive. You learn how to adapt, how to be creative, and how to move forward. You learn that there is beauty in all change—and the future of philanthropy depends on it.


I’m always wary of articles with a “top 5” or “top 10” list for success. However, I do want to share a few ways that I’ve had success engaging Millennials—and I’d love to hear ways that have worked for you. (Hint: Most of these apply to donors of every age!)

  1. If you have the capacity, start a Young Professionals Board. A Young Professionals Board is a fantastic way to engage and retain forward-thinking, industrious, intelligent, and enthusiastic individuals who are eager to jump in and make things happen. Millennials are often looking to make a name for themselves in their community, within their company, or among their peers—board participation gives them something to hang their hat on, and keeps them coming through the door.
  2. Hone your communication skills. If Millennials are a target audience, then meet them where they are. Be social on social media. Share engaging stories about innovation and collaboration, and talk frequently about opportunities to get involved. Here’s a great article by Claire Axelrad on marketing to Millennials.
  3. Introduce events with different price points. If gaining entrance to your gala requires a purchase of a $100 ticket, try adding a “cocktail hour-only” ticket for $25. Adding something additional to an event can also be spearheaded by an engaged group of young professionals who can help you reach a younger demographic.
  4. Expand your volunteer opportunities. Do a scan of your current opportunities. Are the hours and positions offered more likely to coincide with the availability and skill-set of a retired teacher than those of a young business professional juggling work and family? Are you sharing volunteer opportunities on social media with a link back to the volunteer page of your website? YouthLink has had great success engaging young professionals in volunteering by expanding our meal service program to include breakfast and lunch. The hours for these shifts can be done either before work or on a lunch break—and don’t dip into valuable family time.
  5. Don’t forget to ask for financial support. While Millennials might not have the capacity to make large investments, they do give and, overwhelmingly, they give online. Make sure donating online to your organization is easy (charity:water’s giving page is great example). Make sure your website is optimized for mobile devices. And—as you do with all donors—make sure you let them know how their investment of $10 or $25 is being put to use while you’re thanking them (ASAP) for their generosity.

There are so many great ideas out there on how to engage with this generational demographic of outstanding, intelligent, and committed individuals—and to keep them engaged with us.

In fact, I’d love to make this a bigger conversation: What questions do you have? What’s worked for you? Let me hear from you!



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