Millennial vs. Boomer Strategies: Time to Move On?

Originally appeared in Philanthropy News Digest

If you've ever talked to or heard from a consultant about how your organization can and should reach younger donors, I'd almost guarantee you were told something like, "Wait till they turn seventy-five," or, "Your young donors are fifty-five."

But is that right? Should you only focus your fundraising efforts on Silents and boomers? And is a millennial-focused strategy so bad?

Let's take a closer look.

No doubt about it, a millennial-focused fundraising strategy can be a challenge. (That's not an insult; it's supported by data.)

Then why would an organization even consider such a strategy? Typically, millennial-focused strategies are driven by two factors:

Media-driven generational comparisons. The media love to compare millennials and younger cohorts to their elders, especially boomers. But guess what? That's not a new storyline. The Silent Generation was compared to their parents, the so-called Greatest Generation; boomers were compared to their parents, the Silents; and Gen X-ers were compared to boomers. How long will it be before millennials are compared to the so-called centennials? The important thing for nonprofit organizations is to figure out ways to reach the rising generation as earlier generations move through and out of their peak giving years.

Board-driven pressure. Board members — older ones, especially — are beginning to notice that many of the prospective donors they see at fundraising events, industry meetings, and organizational activities don’t necessarily look like them. It's to be expected that older donors will continue to provide a significant amount of your organization's revenue for the foreseeable future. But Silent and boomer board members know they aren't getting any younger and, combined with all the media coverage of millennials, they are becoming increasingly interested in persuading leadership to shift some of their fundraising focus to younger generations.

Now, if you are an organizational leader, there isn't much you can do to control, or even shape, the media's obsession with generational comparisons. But you certainly can do something in response to pressure from your board — and I'm not talking about issuing a statement like, "We have lots of younger donors age fifty-five and over."  

Before you let frustration with your board get the better of you, take a step back and consider their actual intentions. Our research shows that board members who want their organizations to focus on millennials don't expect them to secure ten or twenty thousand new donors over the next year. On the contrary, the boards we've worked with have had very reasonable expectations when it comes to younger donors. What's more, they also tend to be well versed in the issue or cause their organization is working to address; are happy to participate in activities that build awareness of the organization's work; are willing to support the cause at some level (while knowing their financial resources are not enough to sustain the organization); and want to contribute in other ways (e.g., advocating, using their networks to share important updates, identifying donor prospects).

So when boards pressure organizations to target younger donors, they are not suggesting that the organization only target one demographic. Instead, they're saying it's time to cultivate younger people who are excited about your mission even as you continue to work hard to maintain your relationships with older donors.

Simple, right?

Okay, maybe not so much. But if you're a nonprofit leader, you probably realize it's not enough to focus on total revenue and donor yield; you need to see every individual, regardless of age, skill set, network, and resources, as a potential asset to your cause. And you need to understand that, over time, as your supporters move through the life cycle, they will be willing to give more of one asset then another, depending on where they are in that cycle. Whether 18 or 80, all your supporters bring with them assets that can move your issue or cause forward.

That's why it is foolish, if not dangerous, for an organization to wait until millennials (and centennials!) are no longer young to begin paying attention to them. Because there are so many worthy organizations out there vying for our time, money, and attention, your organization simply can't afford to ignore anyone who might be willing to help. With federal spending on many social programs likely to be cut, that's more true than ever.

Here's the bottom line: no organization should focus only on millennials, or only on boomers. While your primary fundraising activities may target older donors with greater financial resources, don't overlook all those eager young people out there who perhaps have time, energy, and enthusiasm to spare. You may not want to spend a lot of resources asking them for money, but do think about what they are able and willing do to support your cause.

When it comes to building a movement, there is no such thing as too many supporters. Stay focused on building your donor base, but don't forget about the people who believe in your cause and are willing to make phone calls, spread the word through their social networks, and even show up for a march. Those are assets you simply can't — and shouldn't — ignore. 

Susannah Buehner