How to Reach Millennial Donors

The 2013 Millennial Impact Report offers data on millennials' propensity to give:

  • 83% of millennial respondents gave a financial gift to a non-profit in 2013 (up from 75% in 2012)
  • 52% would be interested in monthly giving

In light of this high propensity to give and the significant opportunity this presents to grow the donor pipeline, it is especially crucial for annual giving professional to take stock of what motivates their millennial alumni to give--and be intentional in strengthening this base of givers as these donors age into their early 30s.

Millennials first support causes they are passionate about (rather than institutions), so it's up to organizations to inspire them and show them that their support can make a tangible difference on the wider issue. The question for nonprofits becomes then: How can we fully invest in this generation, immerse them in the cause, and maximize the impact of their interest, time, and giving?
2013 Millennial Impact Report

To gather practical suggestions, we turned to Jeff Mavros, director of the Wesleyan Fund at Illinois Wesleyan University, who has led a very intentional effort to research the motivations and affinity of IWU's alumni and to craft deliberate strategies for acquiring and stewarding millennial donors.

Drivers of Millennial Giving

While the characteristics of millennials are well-documented, Mavros calls attention to several key drivers at play in the ways that millennials choose to interact with their alma mater:

  • This cadre of young alumni are more likely to place their trust in an individual they have connected with personally than in an institution, even in one whose mission they believe in
  • While this cadre is transient and may not keep the institution up to date on their affinity and contact info, they are likely to develop and maintain a robust peer network
  • They are less likely to be moved by a multi-million-dollar philanthropic goal than by a more personal explanation of the impact of their smaller gift

Mavros suggests a number of practical implications and courses of action.

First, when making the ask, make sure the outreach comes from individuals with whom a group of alumni have a personal connection. "When talking to alumni who graduated in the '60s," Mavros remarks, "the chancellor or the president's name carries weight. Most of the millennial group is less likely to care who the president is. They'll feel connected with key faculty, or administrative staff who made a difference in their college experience, or coaches. Be intentional about collecting information on who these influencers are before your students graduate."

Here's one way to do this. When inviting seniors to contribute to a capstone gift, give each contributor the opportunity to send a certificate of thanks to one member of the campus community, a certificate stating that the senior has made this class gift contribution in honor of this faculty or staff member. "The senior gets to recognize the person who went the extra mile for them, and we get to find out who those people on our campus are," Mavros notes. "That's helpful in a few years, when Dr. Brown can send a letter to a group of alumni who connected with him. That's much more effective than sending them a letter from the director of the annual fund."

Second, Mavros emphasizes the importance of identifying not only key influencers among faculty and staff but also influencers in graduates' peer networks. He notes that many millennials are multi-talented, have double majors or minors, and participate in a broad spectrum of campus experiences: the same student may have participated in a fraternity, played a sport, studied music, and minored in another discipline. "Which experience was most salient for them?" Mavros asks. "Use peers to reach out to peers, because peers can self-identify for us who their affinity networks are."

Third, Mavros suggests recognizing and honoring millennials' desire to make a personal contribution by striking a careful balance in your messaging. While being clear about unrestricted giving, give specific and targeted examples of where small gifts make a difference. "Think about ways to package small gifts of $25 or $100," Mavros suggests. "Don't talk about the large million-dollar goal and the big picture. This group is participatory in nature and they are starting their careers in a recession. Give them something tangible to focus on, such as an annual fund's focus on bolstering scholarships for future students.

Strengthening Your Base

"As our alumni age into their 30s," Mavros adds, "I'd like to be able to acquire more multi-year and perpetual pledges. It seems silly to me to chase the same donors every year. We know that there's a big difference between a one-time donor and one who gives for two or three years straight. Rather than try to reach every donor we want to retain on an individual basis every year with limited staff, try to automate retention as much as you can."

If a donor has been giving consistently for three years, Mavros suggests that the priority in messaging to that donor shouldn't be making the case for renewal but rather making it as easy and convenient as possible for them to repeat the gift. Introduce options for automated annual, quarterly, and monthly giving.

"I hear from 30-somethings that they don't want to be called all the time," Mavros notes. "They are developing families and are busier. They're less inclined to pay attention to mailings and take phone calls. Take them to lunch once a year or call them to steward them, but use that touchpoint to thank them and let them know what you've done with their gifts, not to ask them for the same thing again. That's time well-spent. A few years ahead, I would rather have the problem of needing to upgrade automated givers in a more timely fashion and make a more personal connection in stewarding them, than the problem of not having enough donors. That's a much better problem to address than trying to find the time to constantly be in front of them asking for money."