Nonprofit executives are tricking themselves out of their own best practices. History repeats itself – even when it comes to engaging millennials.

I am thrilled to author a column in History News, a quarterly magazine put out by the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) called “Generation Why.” This is the article from the Spring 2015 column. (You can check out the article in PDF format here.). 

An increasing portion my work with visitor-serving organizations revolves around millennial engagement. In conversations, “millennial engagement” often predictably morphs into a discussion on “digital engagement.” And, this seems logical: Data suggest that millennials (those of us roughly aged 18-35) are generally a technologically-savvy and socially-connected bunch.

I was recently at the table with the leadership team (the “Chiefs”) of a large visitor-serving organization discussing the very topic of millennial engagement. Near the start of the conversation, one leader thoughtfully attempted to communicate where he thought his organization was falling short in terms of engaging audiences:

Quote- need to get better at telling this audience about the importance

 I immediately understood what this leader way trying to say. I’ve heard sentences like this too many times to count. And yet, these sentences never feel quite right. It’s like an ugly sweater made from your exact measurements with your name embroidered on it – you recognize it as made for you (and might even appreciate it)…but you’re just not going to wear it.

It seems that perhaps the emergence of new, technological tools may be causing institutional leaders to second-guess themselves out of the valuable expertise that makes them those very leaders in the first place. While we millennials represent the first generation of “digital natives,” our wiring isn’t completely different than those who have come before us.

While there are certainly benefits to understanding how this generation connects and communicates differently than previous generations, this type of “other” thinking (i.e. how better to engage millennials) needs a strategic refocusing on what really matters. Here are four distractions embedded within the “millennial engagement” mentality that are steering organization leaders away from what is – and perhaps always has been – most important.


Distraction: Tell

Focus: Show

Thanks in large part to the real-time nature of social media, potential visitors and supporters are now able to make their own immediate assessments of the organizations that they support based on how an organization communicates. When an organization posts on social media platforms, that organization’s cumulative brand perception is made up of the sum of these posts. In other words, what your organization posts reveals a great deal about who your organization truly is and what it actually values. In this sense, organizations are showing their values as opposed to simply telling audiences about them. An organization may post certain words related to their mission on social platforms, but if the overall essence of the posts don’t match that “promise,” it risks eroding perceived trust. Organizations should aim to constantly show who they are – audiences trust what they see more than what you tell them.


Distraction: Importance

Focus: Relevance

Many organizations seem to believe that declaring the importance of a topic is what may help it rise above the noise that pollutes our inboxes and newsfeeds. However, an institution can declare importance until it is blue in the face, but if a topic isn’t relevant, then it’s unlikely to be meaningful to your audiences. To be clear, being relevant is different than being timely or simply being present on digital platforms. Being relevant is about how an organization communicates its mission via its content and the messages it uses to create a connection. Social media is a tool. An organization’s stories and information is the true connector. In order to attract younger audiences, it makes sense that those stories should be important to them – not just “important” as determined by the organization.


Distraction: Impressions

Focus: Influence

“Impressions” is a word that has evolved from the concept of informing an opinion about something to what may be the worst sort of digital analytical jargon. Because it’s popular definition has become entirely quantitative, it may be tricking leaders into believing that their tried-and-true experiences don’t apply in the digital world. What matters more than the number of millennials (or other audience members) who saw a story is how many audience members cared about that story enough for it to influence their perceptions and behavior. In other words, the sheer number of people who see an organization’s social media channels or website, for instance, is less important than the number of people that were influenced by it and thought, “Hey, that institution interests me and I’d like to learn more about them…and perhaps pay them a visit.” This certainly isn’t a new concept for leaders. Web-based “vanity metrics” are a new concept – and they are also a new distraction.


Distraction: Technology

Focus: People

Consider this: Digital marketing and marketing are one and the same – they are both about influencing people and behavior. Likewise, digital fundraising and fundraising are synonymous in successful organizations. Again, they are both about people and behavior. “Digital” is a way of connecting via engaging content, not “knowing Java” or “mastering Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm.” Sure, those skills have value in the digital world, but they aren’t the point of “being digital.” Communication goals on real-time, digital platforms should serve the same purpose and mission as the rest of the institution. An online donor is still a donor. A website visitor is still a visitor (i.e. a person connecting with your brand and mission). The difference is the platform (“connection point”), and the goal is the same as “in real life.”

Indeed, we millennials have distinct, data-informed characteristics that define our generation. Data suggest that we are civic-minded, socially-connected, “digital natives” who (gulp!) are used to attention and believe we are special. We are different – just as members of Generation X and Baby Boomers profile differently from their respective generational predecessors.

What if instead of thinking, “We need to be better at telling this audience the importance of our institution through our use of technology and getting more impressionsorganizations posited:

Quote- We need to be better at showing this audience the relevance

Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same.