November 11, 2012

5 Things Charities Do That Turn Off Young Donors Like Me

As a fundraiser, it can be tough work attracting people in their 20’s. As someone who is both a millennial and a fundraiser, I know that people in my generation have plenty of good excuses for their apparent lack of generosity: Too many student loans, subpar employment opportunities, no tradition of giving. But they are just that—excuses.

If fundraisers take the right approach, it is possible to secure meaningful support from young people. Here are five things fundraisers should stop doing (along with some advice about what to do).

Talk at me instead of with me.

Communicating with millennials requires going well beyond the scope of television, radio, print news, or vanilla e-mails.

Our communities—for better or worse —exist almost solely in the virtual space. We were raised sending instant messages to our friends and stumping our teachers with our ability to find arcane information on the sprouting Internet.

Now that we are adults, we embody the notion of interconnectivity. That’s why nonprofits need to find creative ways to use social-media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and blogs that spark us to action.

Smart nonprofits should recognize that young people embrace social media as a two-way channel that allows us not only to stay abreast of the world around us but also to share our views about it.

So make sure your nonprofit’s leaders use Twitter so millennials can find them there directly, and be sure your organization tweets at least three times a day, even if it’s only a retweet of something else. Offer incentives for people to “like” your nonprofit on Facebook or to comment on your blog by giving away free stuff or prizes. Encourage employees and volunteers to take high-quality pictures and video so you can share them via Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest or your blog to help us better understand your work.

Send me junk mail.

While direct-mail campaigns may still be a useful way to secure gifts from GenX and baby-boomer donors, they are unlikely to capture dollars from young adults. Few of us receive any meaningful “snail” mail. We pay and track our finances online, and we move so frequently we can barely keep up with updating our billing address.

When we do open a piece of mail, it’s usually hand-addressed from someone we can identify by the return address label. If that’s not you, you can pretty much count on that piece of mail making its way directly into the trash.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume your direct-mail piece is so compelling that it gets us to open it. Here, you face the additional hurdle of actually getting us to give.

If you’re asking us to put our information on a donation form or write a check and put it in the mail to you, leave all hope behind.

We know that smart people don’t write their credit card information down on pieces of paper and put it in the mail. Further, even if you do have a link to your online donation page, you’ll need us to be patient enough to navigate your mobile-unfriendly site from our smartphone.

If direct mail is a must, at least use a quick-response code our smartphones can read and make it easy to use your donation page on a mobile device. But, if you can find us and connect with us online first, you’ll increase your odds of actually getting us to give.

Stay silent about your business model.

In earlier eras, nonprofits could appeal to a donor’s sense of morality and get a check. But the ease of access everyone has to data means that young adults expect your organization to outline the cost and value of your work.

Let’s take a summer camp that costs $2,000 per child to administer. Perhaps the program charges only $250 per participant so that more children can afford to attend. Last year the camp served 150 children and intended to include the same number this year, but at the last minute, is trying to offer spots in the program to the 50 children who remain on the wait list. That means the camp needs $87,500—and fast—in order to include the last 50 children.

Millennials are not the only ones excited by the appeal “We need your help to raise $87,500 to send 50 underserved kids to summer camp.”

If you want your millennial supporters to give as generously as possible, don’t ask them to consider a gift to the annual fund.

Instead, ask them to support specific projects and make clear exactly what it costs the organization and how it contributes to achieving your mission.

Building systems that allow your organization to break down its costs and value in a granular way can seem daunting, but the best way to start is one program at a time. When you make one program with concrete figures the centerpiece of your online appeal, your millennial donors, and plenty of older supporters, will be sure to notice.

Undervalue my capacity to give.

Because most nonprofits don’t know how to reach millennials, they assume young adults just don’t give, so fundraisers settle for asking for small gifts.

But millennials know that $25, unless it’s raised through Kickstarter, doesn’t amount to much. When solicited for such small amounts from an established nonprofit, millennials don’t see how a gift of that size can actually have an impact.

But it’s possible to jump this hurdle, too. Take the $1K Club at the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, which asks “emerging philanthropists” to pledge to give $1,000 to the foundation over two years. With a monthly auto-draft giving program, a mechanism many millennials prefer, this comes out to about $40 a month, the same most spend monthly on a gym membership, or Starbucks lattes.

Not only does the $1K Club leave its members feeling as if they are making a meaningful contribution, it also allows the foundation to cultivate them as future big donors and estimate accurately how much young donors will give.

Never ask for my advice.

It’s not just fundraisers, but employers and managers who too often fail to seek meaningful feedback from people in our generation. Because millennials have been raised to expect a community of information sharing with constant feedback loops, we tend to get frustrated and overly critical when we aren’t asked for our ideas and input.

And we aren’t content simply to respond to an annual survey. We want to be asked what we think about something that matters, and we want you to put our ideas to work.

Nonprofits that take this advice will be repaid with loyalty and support. Once millennials feel meaningfully engaged, your organization will see their commitment and generosity grow.

Alicia Bonner Ness is a program manager at CDC Development Solutions, in Washington.