Millennials donate for different primary reasons than other adult generations.
Oh, millennials. We frequently talk about them in the cultural sector – and for good reason. Millennials represent the largest generation in the US, and they are thus the most frequent visitors to cultural organizations such as zoos, aquariums, museums, and performing arts entities. At the same time, entities are not reaching them at representative rates, meaning millennials are both the generation we need to keep happy and the generation we need to better attract.
Despite active discussion about cultivating millennial visitors, cultural institutions don’t seem to have the same level of active discussion about cultivating millennial donors. Instead, the discussion still centers around maximizing philanthropic support from Baby Boomers, who generally have more wealth and giving capacity than millennials. To thrive, however, entities benefit by cultivating philanthropic support from millennials as well.
One in three adults in the United States is a millennial, and there are more millennials in the US workforce than any other generation. Despite having less wealth than Baby Boomers had at similar ages, millennials make up a large portion of US spending. Millennials are estimated to receive approximately $30 trillion in the coming decades. It is predicted that millennials will become the richest generation in US history as Baby Boomers transfer their wealth in the next ten years.
Now is not the time to fall asleep at the millennial-philanthropic-giving wheel. It’s the time to rev things up.
In order to successfully cultivate millennial donors to cultural organizations, it helps to know why millennials make philanthropic gifts to these institutions. We have data on that – and it has some hard-hitting implications for visitor-serving enterprise.
IMPACTS asked 1,268 donors to tell us – in their own words – why they made their most recent gift to a cultural entity such as a museum or performing arts organization. The information shown below are the answers from 598 millennials (born on or after 1980) and 670 non-millennials (born before 1980) from a lexical analysis process. This means that we did not ask these folks to choose from a list of possible reasons for giving. Instead, they identified themselves as donors within the $250-$2,500 giving bracket, and we asked them open-ended questions about why they donated. The decision to donate funds to an entity is often multi-faceted. To assess their strength of conviction, we asked folks to tell us their top “two or three reasons.” This encourages thoughtfulness and also helps us determine the weighted values of other answers when considering the frequency of mention of the reasons. There are two main objectives for this kind of questioning: (1) To understand the true and unframed reasons why people give, and (2) to put those reasons in index value (seen below) to assess their relationships to one another. The sample size is high to assure 95% confidence for the findings.
Index values are a way of assigning proportionality around a mean of 100. The items with index values over 100 are the leading factors particularly worthy of attention. The findings below are ranked by descending frequency by millennial responses.
“But people who donate less than $250 still matter! What about them?!” Of course they matter. This article focuses on an amount that is more reliably an active or thoughtful decision to give. After all, we’re aiming to get at the reasons why people choose to support an organization and we’re aiming to dig deeper than “I was delivered a well-placed ask on social media and had $10 to spare.” The aim is to look into what motivates the choice to reach deeper into one’s pocket.
Data onboarding complete! Let’s get to the good stuff – the findings.
There’s one thing you’re likely to notice immediately: The top reasons for making donations are dramatically different for millennial and non-millennial adults. Here are the top reasons from the chart above, ranked:
This information is eye-opening. At IMPACTS, we’re already diving even deeper. Here are some immediate implications and considerations informed by these findings:
1) Millennials value personal connection.
A ready note is that the top reasons for giving among millennial donors are feelings-based and tie to what the organization stands for and works toward. This is in stark contrast to “tax benefit” making the list for adult non-millennials.
Millennials generally seek interactions that are personal and customized, they are happiest when they are connected to their coworkers, and social responsibility is critical for engaging them. These trends may be manifesting themselves in the above data and fueling primary giving motivators such as supporting an organization’s mission and impact. Feelings are necessarily personal, and they can play a leading role in motivating behavior.
This certainly does not mean that millennials alone care about contributing to an organization’s mission. Millennials do not “own” personal connection, relevance, and a desire to do good! Mission contribution is a primary benefit of membership, specifically, among millennials and non-millennials alike. Indeed, the preference for personal connection may take its roots from being active on the web – where it can be difficult for competing messages to rise above the noise. It may be those messages with meaning that do so most successfully.
The data also points to some interesting implications that may influence the millennial generations’ motivating factors compared to those of non-millennial adults…
2) Cultural entities may not be “meeting millennials where they are.”
The millennial generation is especially connected to social media. To a meaningful – but not necessarily exclusive – extent, it is on these digital communication platforms that millennials may be determining their connection to an organization’s mission, their want to be affiliated with the entity, and how much satisfaction they may feel by supporting that institution.
To go deeper to the heart of things that are taking place philanthropically, let’s look at the top reasons why millennials and non-millennials discontinued giving to cultural entities. This information comes from 1,160 adults in the US who were former donors to cultural organizations at the $250-$2,500 level, and then did not make another gift in over two years. It is broken down by millennials (512) and adult non-millennials (648). Like the information above, this information was gathered through open-ended queries rather than folks choosing from a list of responses.
First things first: “How is the leading reason why all donors in this level stop giving that they weren’t thanked for their gift?! We thank everyone for their gifts! This certainly doesn’t apply to us!”
Not so fast. Donors at this level who discontinue giving may not feel like they are thanked. Thus, they are not thanked. (Donors decide how they feel. Cultural organization staff members don’t get to decide this for them.) A common culprit is an automatic reply of thanks when somebody gives online. From some institutions’ standpoint, this may be a “totally valid, personalized thank you that is simply easier for us because it’s automated and we’re busy.” But from the donor’s standpoint, this email may be seen not as a message of gratitude but as a receipt. …And the donor may not receive a personal thanks at all.
For KYOB readers, the news that the top reason why donors stop giving is that they do not feel thanked is not new. What IS new is that not being asked to donate again is a very close and high-ranking second factor for millennials!
It’s possible – if not likely – that cultural entities are asking millennials to donate from their own perspective, but they are doing so on platforms and in ways that do not reach millennials or cultivate the appropriate personal feeling of being asked… or thanked when they do give.
The fact that “lack of communication of use of funds or impact of gift” is higher for millennials may further underscore that cultural entities are not making this information available on the platforms most appropriate for them. Millennials – and increasingly everyone else – are looking to digital platforms alongside more traditional platforms in order to assess how much institutions “walk their talk” in terms of their mission and values.
Millennials are on digital platforms even more than older generations, and if we’re not talking to them or showing our impact by way of content “where they are,” then we risk millennials not hearing the message at all. And they aren’t hearing it, if cultural entities are indeed considering millennial donors, that is.
Which begs another relevant question…
3) Are entities asking millennials to give in the first place?
Why do I say that not reaching millennials adequately via their preferred platforms may be what’s happening, instead of identifying it clearly as the singular culprit? Because the research – that millennials are not listing being asked for support as a top motivator and that they are not receiving repeat donation requests – suggests something else may be at play. Perhaps entities simply aren’t even asking millennials to donate at more meaningful levels.
With a decade’s worth of thinkpieces on millennials “killing” industries left and right, it may be easy to make broad assumptions about cash-strapped 20- and 30-somethings. But the millennial generation – just like any other generation – is not homogeneous. A millennial donor at a $250+ level is a type of millennial… Just as a Baby Boomer donor at a $250+ level is a type of Baby Boomer. If cultural entities primarily went after the “average” of any age cohort as prioritized philanthropic targets, then they might never have enough funds to obtain large gifts or carry out major projects at all! Donors are not “everyone” and going for only “the average” leads to missed opportunities to cultivate the subset of any generation that is actually willing to support an entity.
On the whole, the millennial generation is less wealthy than older generations (for now), but this does not mean that the nearly 100 million millennials in the US are not making meaningful donations to nonprofits. In fact, it’s been reported that millennials are the most likely to give among generational cohorts.
We also know that millennials who have been to any kind of cultural organization in the last two years are 11.6x more likely than the average American to make online donations to nonprofits. Active millennial visitors are a great start for cultivating millennial donors! Our key to cultivating a community of supporters may be taking these people to the next level, rather than reading about an average millennial and deciding the entire generation isn’t worth much effort to cultivate.
The top reasons why millennials donate compared to adult non-millennials giving at the same level is rich in findings and implications, and it is also rich in new questions that depend upon evening the playing field.
What would be the top reasons why millennials give if entities appropriately integrated digital engagement into ongoing strategies?
What would be the top reasons why millennials give if we could control for outreach, and were certain that cultural entities were targeting millennial donors equally to targeting non-millennials in the first place?
We don’t know the answers. And to get them, we’d need to better our efforts in engaging millennials compared to other generations and master “meeting them where they are” in terms of communication platforms and the stories of our impact that we use those platforms to tell.
But today, we know the top reasons why millennials and non-millennials donate in the range of $250-$2,500. This is what matters if we want to better engage donors of all ages.
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