‘Tis the season for end-of-year giving and I – like many others around this time – am filling out my annual philanthropic support. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of my annual giving supports various cultural organizations.
In 2013, I wrote an article called Six Sad Truths That I Have Learned As A Millennial Donor. Almost six and a half years later, it still gets attention. I’m still a millennial donor – but I am a more experienced one who now serves on the Board of Directors of a major institution that welcomes well over a million visitors a year. I’ve given both recurring and on-the-spot donations, and I’ve excitedly signed up for memberships… and felt relieved when some expired.
I tend to shy away from articles about my own thoughts and experiences on this website. This site shares high-confidence market research and analysis. Every single data-focused article on this site is analyzed to me from the data team to be sure that I fully understand the findings and methodology in order to effectively communicate them without bias, and every single article is edited by others on the back end as well. We go to great lengths to base articles on what we know – not what we think.
Today, I’m breaking this rule. This article is about my own experiences as a millennial donor and frequent member to cultural organizations.
I’m no billionaire single-handedly funding a new museum wing, but I regularly make five-figure and several four-figure gifts each year. I have solidly contributed six figures to a single cultural institution over the last few years. I’m certainly not an Ultra High Net Worth Individual with net assets over US $50 million but I’m far from chopped liver (I hope)!
I’m not writing this first-person article because I’m necessarily the average millennial donor. That would be inappropriate to do on this website without high-confidence data. Instead, I may represent some insight into a certain kind of millennial donor that entities may want to further cultivate. There’s a lot of space between the $100 annual donor and the million-dollar annual donor. Millennials are a massive generation of now full-blown adults, and just because many are legitimately struggling with things like education debt (been there), far from all of us are! Entities write off millennials as meaningful potential supporters at their own risk.
I’m going to focus this article most on the “regularities” of my own giving and membership annoyances, and the things that spark new giving for me. My hope is that shining a light on my experiences may provide new ways to think about things. These are my own experiences and preferences, but I’ve linked to trend data in some cases for a deeper dive when there’s reason to believe that I may not be alone.
1) I make nearly all of my donations online.
I make almost all donations online. This shouldn’t be surprising. Likely visitors to cultural organizations tend to be super-connected with access to the web at home, at work, and on a mobile device. Digital platforms – such as website and social media – are primary information platforms regardless of age group, and even more so for millennials. Perhaps this is why I am so comfortable giving online. It’s quick and easy. It’s where I already spend time taking in information.
I have also never once responded to a snail mail request for donations – even if I like the organization and would be willing to donate in general. If paying by mail is the proposed “best option” in the ask, I just won’t give. Putting a check in the mail sounds like a risky, unnecessary adventure to me. Getting out to the post office is a bigger hassle than perhaps it should be and I don’t have the mental energy to track a check in the mail and stress. I don’t have to worry about any of that online. I understand that this may sound strange to those not in my generation. (No, not one of my bills – including my property taxes – are paid via snail mail.)
My exception to online giving is only when making my biggest gifts. And I would make all donations online if many nonprofits didn’t lose a portion of the gift on a transaction fee. I want it all to support the organization. I am mentioning this to communicate that online giving is my desired method for nearly all amounts! For my bigger gifts, I try to hand checks over in person. On two occasions, I sent them first class mail and tracked them like a hawk… and in true millennial form, notified the Chief Philanthropy Officer to keep an eye out for a major gift via private message on Instagram. (No joke.) That last part may be uncommon and unique to me, but it also underscores the point: I’m online and I want giving to be as streamlined, convenient, and stress-free as possible.
The trade-off of giving online? I’m rarely thanked for my gifts. This is common. The top reason why people stop donating to a cultural organization is because they are not thanked for their gifts. (An auto-generated confirmation tied to a generic email is a receipt, not a thank you.) My own experiences and behaviors are no exception.
2) I give impromptu donations to entities that provide personal attention
My sister and I have a thing for ketchup. (Go ahead and judge. I’m proud.) I gifted my sister a small ketchup ornament from the Heinz History Center when she got engaged, and she was saddened when she accidentally dropped it. For several months, she jokingly-but-not-jokingly asked me to replace it. I hopped online and ordered a new ornament. I didn’t do anything special. Imagine my surprise when the ornament arrived with a handwritten personalized card that mentioned this website – and had a smiley face, to boot!
I made an unrequested, impromptu $250 donation upon reading the little note.
Yes, it was nice to hear that they read this website (Hi, HHC!), and I am beyond grateful for this and the other wonderful notes and messages that I receive for this effort. (Thank you to all for reading!) What really got me here, though, was the attention to detail from the store staff. What a reminder that humans see our names when we buy things and even that can be an opportunity to connect with someone. I felt very warm and fuzzy. If you’ve ever purchased an item on Etsy and it was delivered with a personal touch from the seller, then you may have an idea of this feeling. I’d never experienced this before from a museum.
I frequently make impromptu donations after personalized interactions. Even a few years back, I made an impromptu donation to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation after they arranged for an upbeat fitness instructor to run a private class to the Hamilton soundtrack during a bachelorette party there. (Call me nerdy. I’m not embarrassed. It was so much fun.) I have several stories like this with different cultural entities throughout the years.
People, man. People are where it’s at.
(We have powerful data and a new video coming your way on the power of personal interactions in increasing donations that we’re excited to share with you in 2020.)
What about bigger donations? Without exception, I have never made a four or (especially) five-figure gift without having a personal connection to the organization. That usually means having a connection with a staff or board member as well. Interestingly, research shows that very big donors (far, far bigger than myself), care a great deal about connection and the other people who support an organization.
3) I’ve purposefully discontinued memberships because of print mail
Let me warn you before we get too deep: This is a hot button topic for me. *Taking a deep breath.*
I am quite certain that my memberships to upwards of 15 cultural organizations in the last five-ish years have unintentionally demolished entire forests – and I’m angry about it. I didn’t realize that by supporting cultural entities, I was signing up to pollute the air and water and diminish natural resources. And it’s not just that organizations sometimes send large volumes of mail – it’s that some of them also sell my contact information to other cultural organizations to bombard me with even more paper!
It’s as if entities forget that the kind of people who go to cultural organizations are the kind of people who go to cultural organizations. Yours may not be the only membership we have. I think this all peaked for me between 2015 and 2017 – the “Colleen’s Great Museum Membership Tree Massacre.” Since then, I’ve been much more thoughtful about my memberships. Frankly, I don’t purchase as many, even if I respect and believe in the institution. And I’m still getting snail mail from several entities to which I can only assume museums sold my mailing address…
In my opinion, supporting a cultural organization should have nothing to do with deforestation.
Maybe I’m not an outlier in my preferences, either. Millennials care about the environment. There are many, many studies on this. We at IMPACTS are also tracking this growing sentiment among millennials! I support museums and performing arts entities to feel good – not to feel guilty about contributing to a global crisis. (I would need to put in a data request on this topic to see how strong my sentiment is on this compared to other millennials. But why is “generic snail mail overload” the default in a digitally connected world?) For the moment, consider this a very strong personal gripe.
It’s a shame, because if there were personal notes sent to me in these bombardments, I likely missed them in the sea of newsletters and snail mail donation requests. As mentioned above, personal touches via snail mail can go a very long way!
Look. I am over here carrying around metal straws and avoiding printing documents, and I regularly bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Please don’t undercut my environmental efforts because I choose to support you, too, museums!
I shouldn’t have to choose.
4) But I still don’t know when my memberships expire
This is a quick one. Though I’ve decreased the number of entities to which I purchase memberships, I still could not tell you which of those I have (or think I have) are active.
Although I may be an abnormally strong museum-lover, research shows that I’m not alone in not knowing if my memberships have expired. The third-biggest reason expired members don’t renew their memberships is because they did not realize they were no longer members. (The first is that folks intend to renew when they next visit, and the second is that they forgot.) The good news is that these top three reasons do not have to do with disliking the organization or consciously changing one’s mind about the institution.
While membership expiration dates are top-of-mind for membership teams, they aren’t always top-of-mind with members. Birthdays, bills, errands, and other life items may be more front-and-center on a regular basis. As it turns out, life has a lot of moving parts. (Oof.)
How are people missing the memo on when memberships expire? It may be that cultural organizations aren’t “meeting people where they are” in terms of how they take in information. (In my own case, please revisit point #3.)
This said, I really value being a member to cultural organizations, and it often matters to me to be part of the organization’s community of advocates – even when I don’t visit every year. In my opinion, it feels nice and “insider-y” to be a member of an entity doing awesome things!
5) Serving on a Board of Directors is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had
I was honored to join the Board of Directors of the National Aquarium in 2013. I cannot even begin to describe how much I’ve learned (and continue to learn) being on this end of cultural organization leadership. I get to take part in hard conversations, help drive cutting-edge sector evolution, and connect with truly incredible fellow board members. It’s not always easy, but it is always rewarding.
I was – and still am – continually surprised by how few cultural organizations have millennials on their boards. Hop to it! Here are some urgent reasons to invite millennials to join the board of your cultural organization.
But it’s not just a matter of boards inviting millennials onto the scene. We millennials need to step up to the plate, too. Serving on a board is not a game of “show up and say what you think and run the show.” It’s a commitment to be taken very seriously. I live in Chicago and I fly out to Baltimore for nearly every board meeting. We are a “giving board” – and we request a minimum annual donation amount. I take this seriously and I don’t expect to get off easy because I’m younger. (I’m not even the only millennial on the board anymore!) In fact, I would hate that. I am in the front seat pinching myself and contributing equally alongside incredible community and environmental leaders who are renowned within Baltimore and also throughout the world.
To millennials, here are four good reasons to join the board of an organization you love. I think my final point sums it up best: You’ll care more than you thought you could. I am grateful for the opportunity to care this much.
I’m grateful to work with amazing leaders from impactful cultural organizations every day. If I could, I would likely personally support every one of them – and I know I’m far from alone in strongly valuing the work that all of you do every single day. Cultural organizations are educating and inspiring the masses. Your work makes us all better friends, neighbors, and parents.
I hope that my experiences and giving behavior are helpful to you in considering how to reach and engage audiences today. How strange it feels to write an article based on my own experiences! It’s been some time. I hope you’ve found this valuable or interesting.
Thank you to cultural executives, staff members, board members, and volunteers for all of your hard work making the world better. Thanks for pursuing causes so worthy of philanthropic support. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to meaningful solutions.
I’m grateful. I know I’m not alone.
I’m grateful that this website is regularly read by tens of thousands of cultural executives! This article is intended to be helpful and is in no way a request for philanthropic outreach. While I deeply value the meaning that cultural entities make in their communities and the world, kindly please do not reach out to me for a quick donation upon reading this article. My intention is to help you court others – not to direct you on how to court me. Thank you.
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