Millennials and the Social Sector: What’s Next?

Originally appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review

Achieve and the Case Foundation started five years ago with a simple supposition: Millennials are poised to become the Next Greatest Generation.

This idea sprung from the belief that this generation (born between 1979 and 1990) has the potential and desire to create a new model for social change—and on a scale unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times.

Both the Achieve and the Case Foundation teams understood that for the social sector to fully integrate this rising generation of changemakers into its work, it needed to better understand Millennials’ passions, drive, and characteristics. Together, our organizations have undertaken four annual studies, which form the basis of the Millennial Impact Project. The purpose of this ongoing effort is to provide much-needed information to organizations and causes that are trying to engage this often-misunderstood group of next-gen donors, volunteers, and employees. Important to our evaluation process is listening to Millennials and then amplifying their voices.

More than 16,000 Millennials from the United States and 50 research partners, over the course of four years, have contributed to the project so far, making it one of the largest and most comprehensive studies about Millennials and causes. Based on this research, we’ve identified four insights about how this generation of Americans connects, gets involved, and gives.

1.  Millennial preferences are becoming more than just preferences; they’re becoming the norm for all donors. These young do-gooders are quickly influencing how organizations communicate to all audiences. Marketing and messaging will lend itself more to the Millennial style of communication, with an emphasis on authentic stories and visual presentations that are concise, mobile-friendly, and delivered online via social media platforms.

This generation’s desire for and attraction to imagery and video has grown notably over the past four years. They use these media elements to vicariously experience social needs and see how their small action can help alleviate a need in that moment. This was clear in 2010 and remained so through 2013, when more than 60 percent of respondents said they felt most invested in a cause when a nonprofit shared a compelling story about successful projects or the people it helps. To create this valuable opportunity, visuals must focus on the stories behind the cause.

The study also found that Millennials use websites and search engines (vs. mailed information, offline events, etc.) primarily for information gathering, finding volunteer opportunities, and giving money, and that they rely on social media and email for communicating and connecting with their networks. In addition, we found that mobile technology continues to grow in importance for this generation, because it gives them instant access to all these preferred channels.

2. Organizations must invest time and resources into helping Millennials feel and experiencethe cause. Millennials are consistent in their desire to see exactly how time, talent, and dollars translate into people helped. They want their contributions—no matter what type or amount—to achieve actual results for a cause.

The top three factors that spurred Millennials to engage in a cause were feeling passionate about the issue, meeting like-minded people, and enhancing their expertise. They ultimately want to lend their knowledge and experience, as well as time, to help a cause (something that did not change over the last four years of survey responses). In later studies, we found that Millennials’ interactions with nonprofit organizations are more impulsive and immediate. When inspired, they will act quickly—whether that means making a small donation or doing a short volunteer stint—provided they encounter opportunities and don’t run into barriers.

3. Organizations must inspire millennials to work through and with their cause, rather than for their organization. Millennials will constantly challenge an organization’s relevance and believe that they can benefit causes, issues, and people without actually working for an organization. Ultimately, they want to lend their knowledge, expertise, and time to help the people or issues the organization touches—not necessarily the organization itself.

When it comes to volunteering, Millennials are most likely to give their time if they know their efforts will make a tangible difference to someone’s life. This generation prefers to get “hands on” with causes they care about—whether that’s one-time, episodic commitments or long-term pro-bono or skills-based opportunities. And when Millennials form long-term volunteer relationships, they tend to give larger gifts, and encourage their friends and family to contribute. When it comes to fundraising, the most successful organizations show Millennials specific examples of how their gifts will affect an individual in need of help.

4. Millennials can be an organization’s secret weapon when it comes to spreading the word about a cause or issue. Millennials collectively have taken on the role of digital marketers for causes. Unlike with previous generations, tools such as social media and peer fundraising put cause-marketing departments in the hands of their constituents. Because they’re aggressively taking on this unofficial marketing role, they are contributing to grassroots-oriented movements.

Peer influence plays an important role in motivating Millennials to volunteer, attend events, participate in programs, and give. The past four surveys consistently showed that the vast majority of Millennials prefer to learn about volunteering opportunities from their peers. Even if they can’t give as much as other demographic groups, they’re willing to help raise funds for causes they care about, usually by calling on friends and family. The influence of an individual on his friends is substantial.

Our research reveals a generation that is energetically trying to transform the world for the better. The mandate is clear: Organizations can’t afford to cater only to older donors and volunteers. Younger audiences are demanding that the causes they support change the way they engage with them. We hope these insights can help organizations work with Millennials to unleash this force for good.

Susannah Buehner