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What do – and don’t – we know about Millennial donors?

By Maureen O’Brien & Cynthia Gibson

Last week Achieve and Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates (JGA) released the 2011 Millennial Donor survey analyzing giving trends among nearly 3,000 respondents ages 20-35.  A follow-up to a similar effort conducted in 2010, the survey continues to be one of the few attempts to study Millennials’ charitable motivations, engagement, and giving patterns.  We say kudos to Achieve and JGA for calling attention to a generation that’s already having an impact in terms of their philanthropy but tend to be overlooked by the data mavens. 

The 2011 survey had some interesting findings that shed light on the giving preferences of this generation and how Millennial philanthropy might play out in the future.  Some conclusions echoed the 2010 survey:  Millennials are diverse and not as one-dimensional as originally thought; they make a lot of their giving based on personal connections; they tend to give to multiple organizations or causes rather than pick just one; and technology plays a big part in how and why they support certain charities over others.  

There were some new findings, including data that shows Millennials don’t actually prefer to donate through texts, mobile apps, Twitter or Facebook, which might be surprising considering how much attention donations made via cellphone and social networking sites, especially following disasters, has received.  Also somewhat surprising was that Millennials, who are commonly seen as following Hollywood trendsetters, are really not swayed to give by celebrity endorsements.  This might explain why the Keep a Child Alive “Digital Death” campaign that had A-listers signing off social networking sites until $1 million dollars was raised was such a failure last year.  The survey also revealed that nonprofits that don’t have a strong and clean online presence, as well as ones that don’t allow donors to make donations efficiently, are going to rapidly lose support from this generation.  

Perhaps the least surprising conclusion (at least to us, anyway) was one that survey researchers declared most important:  Millennials need to trust an organization or cause before they give to it.  This finding not only makes intuitive sense—after all, who’s going to donate to an organization s/he doesn’t trust?—it could be applied across all generations, as any good fundraiser would tell you.

And therein lies the rub:  The data gleaned from this study are hard to interpret without comparable data from other generational cohorts.   While, for example, Millennials aren’t swayed by celebrity endorsements are they more or less so than Boomers?   Is their use of technology to make charitable contributions higher than other generations?  Growing faster?   If so, which ones are being used most and why? 

Another question is how the study defines Millennials, which is generally assumed to be people born after 1980 (meaning those older than 30 would fall into another cohort).  Why is this important?  Because almost half (43%) of the 2011 survey respondents were in the 30-35 age bracket.  This wouldn’t be a big deal except that 30-35 year olds are in a very different social and economic place than their younger counterparts, and proof is in the report.  Older respondents, for example, gave significantly more in 2010 than the 20-24 and 25-29 year-old respondents.  This is just one of many findings in the study that might warrant more examination of the data disaggregated into smaller cohorts (30-35; 25-29; and 20-24-year-olds), rather than lumped together.

Overall, we think the Millennial Donor Surveys are great starting points toward filling the information gap we’ve had about how and why this generation gives.  And they’ll surely provide a baseline for other research, hopefully, that which includes more comparative analyses, particularly within and across generations and time periods.  As one of the most service- and charitable-minded generations in history, Millennials are playing an increasingly powerful role in building a better world.  Organizations wanting their support would be well advised to pay more attention to understanding how this generation intends to achieve that goal.


Derrick Feldmann

Cynthia & Maureen – Thanks for the great comments, questions and feedback. I wanted to add some clarification I thought your readers might find helpful.

We have not seen a consistent definition of Millennials. Some define the millennial generation as being born in the late 70′s and others as only the 80s. Therefore, we set our age parameters from 20-35 to ensure that we get at least those born in 1980 and to cover those born in the later part of the 70′s and where relevant in the survey report broke the data out farther to highlight the differences.

The issue of trust as a giving motivator does seem obvious, but as consultants/practitioners we emphasize it because we have seen many organizations assume their constituents will trust them without thinking about how to really earn that trust. Seeing the importance Millennials place on trust will hopefully ensure it remains a priority for nonprofits to develop trust both online and offline.

I am excited about the generational questions you raise and agree it would be a great study. As a matter of fact, we have scheduled a plenary session specifically on working across generations and addressing the similarities and differences for MDS11, a virtual summit we are presenting with the Case Foundation on June 22.

I appreciate the analysis and look forward to continued dialog.

Cindy G.

Thanks for clarifying some of these points, Derrick. Glad to hear that you and your team continue to push on these issues, which are important. And glad that you’re partnering with my good friends at the Case Foundation, which is way out front on this issue.

2 Trackbacks

[...] The knee-jerk response to the question “how do we engage Millennials and inspire them to give?” is often “online” or “through social media”. So it might surprise some communicators that a recent study suggests Millennials actually don’t prefer to donate using texts or social platforms like Facebook or Twitter. (For a full post on that study, click here) [...]

[...] There are two new generations of donors on the horizon, Millennials and Generation Z. Do you know what you need to about Millennials?: What do – and don’t – we know about Millennial donors? [...]

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