How Nonprofits Convince Millennials to Give: Customize the Cause

Nonprofits are setting their sights on Millennials as potential long-term donors, but that requires a different kind of charity pitch.

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Scott Harrison understands what young people like. As a former nightclub promoter in New York City, he openly admits that he used to get people drunk for a living. But a two-year stint as a photojournalist in Liberia opened his eyes to the suffering happening in other parts of the world, particularly due to a lack of access to clean drinking water. Now he’s using his penchant for slick marketing to get young people to do something else: donate money to build wells in impoverished countries.

“There was a real jaded view towards charities,” Harrison says of the sentiment among his twenty-something friends when he first entered the nonprofit world. “I thought maybe a new model could bring some of these disenchanted people that are potential givers back to the table of giving.”

Charity: water, Harrison’s nonprofit organization, is at the fore of a tough task for the nonprofit sector: convincing the Millennial generation, underemployed and often dubbed apathetic compared to their predecessors, to give some of the little money to charity. For a sector overly reliant on generating money from an aging Baby Boomer population, getting young Millennials donating to nonprofits early is a key to long-term sustainability. That’s why many charities are working to develop a more interactive, customisable, and transparent giving experience.

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“The Millennial generation is about identifying with a cause,” says Marc Chardon,the CEO of Blackbaud, a software developer for nonprofits that tracks giving trends. “[Donating] has become very personal and local.”

In charity: water’s case, that means encouraging supporters to be not only donors but also fundraisers. Half of the funds generated by the organization come from mycharity: water, an online fundraising platform in which individuals create their own personal fundraising campaigns on behalf of the nonprofit. Often, people use the platform on their birthdays and ask others to donate their age in dollars instead of providing gifts. Sometimes the fundraisers are more inventive—in September a woman raised $30,000 by promising to swim across the San Francisco Bay naked, while an 8-year-old generated $15,000 by eating rice and beans for 25 days and promising her family would donate the savings made from buying cheaper groceries.

“Many charities go out and just ask people for money,” Harrison says. “We ask people for their voice.”

It’s an approach that seems to resonate with Millennials. The average age of mycharity: water’s users is 33. The fundraisers have generated almost $20 million total since the platform was launched in 2009, mostly through small donations of less than $100. The organization’s pledge to use all donated funds on fieldwork (private donors fund organizational costs) also assuages young people’s tendency to distrust formal institutions. In a post-recession environment where charitable giving has shrunk, charity: water has increased its donations each year since its founding.

“The fundraisers working for charity:water can’t write a million dollar check,” Harrison says. “What they can do is bring their creativity, bring their passion and spread awareness and ask other people for small donations. A lot of small donations comes together and does something really big.”

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Other tech-minded people in the nonprofit sector are trying to implement similarly customisable giving platforms for other nonprofits., a new, open-source funding platform for nonprofits, wants to make it easy for any charity to show donors where their money is being used and let people create personalized fundraisers. If the platform were adopted by many organizations, users would easily track their giving among different nonprofits and share that information with friends. Calling the platform a Kickstarter for charities, founder Javan Van Gronigen believes such detail and customisation is key to appealing to young people brought up in the information age.

“Before our generation, you saw my parents would be like, “Oh, we want to give to the Red Cross,’” he says. “My generation would say we want to give to education or to fighting child slavery. Now it’s going even deeper and the next generation is saying, ‘I want to save that person right there.’”

Compelling narrative also plays a key role in wooing many donors, particularly young people. A survey of more than 6,000 people between 20 and 35 for the Millennial Impact Report found that 42% chose to donate to “whatever inspired them at the moment.” Invisible Children, a nonprofit focused on stopping the abduction and use of child soldiers in central Africa, struck viral gold with young people in March when it released Kony 2012, a dramatic 30-minute short film about Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony. The video racked up 100 million views in less than a week and helped the organization double its revenue year over year. Van Gronigen’s nonprofit-focused creative studio, Fifty and Fifty, devised the marketing scheme for Kony 2012.

“To solicit donations without doing good storytelling is not going to get you that far,” he says. “[Kony 2012] did well because it was an amazing story and when you watched it, you felt like donating.”

For more traditional nonprofits, targeting Millennials is an investment in the future instead of a tactic to immediately generate funds. The Salvation Army, one of the nation’s oldest charities, recently increased its focus on involving young people after a series of focus groups showed that few students in high school and college knew what the organization did.

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“It was a hard slap in the face,” says Major George Hood, the Salvation Army’s national community relations and development secretary. “It said to us we’ve got to go to work on this or there’s going to be a day where we will not have any donors left.”

Now the organization hosts an annual concert featuring teen favorites like Owl City and sponsors Red Kettle Clubs for philanthropy in high schools around the country. It also debuted  an online Red Kettle for people to launch online fundraisers, which Hood says are popular among their younger donors. All are attempts to help Millennials personally identify with the Salvation Army brand.

“They want that relationship and they want to believe that they’re really making an impact on someone’s life,” he says. “If you can come up with that ingredient, you’re ready to go.”