Yes, your nonprofit should care about millennials.

I’m a big admirer of the late Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers. Maggie founded the Gray Panthers to fight for the rights of seniors after she was forced to retire on her 65th birthday from a job she loved.

When Maggie founded the Panthers, however, she never envisioned the organization as age-segregated in make-up or in causes. The Panther’s motto is “Age and Youth in Action.”  (If you have a chance someday, watch Maggie Growls)

I’ve been thinking more about Maggie, youth and the future of nonprofits lately, especially after attending a panel on Engaging Millennials at the Yale Philanthropy Conference earlier this month. And after two recent conversations with board chairs presiding over boards where the majority of their members were well over 70 years old. (Not that 70 is terribly old these days 😉 )

First, a definition. Millennials are roughly those who were in their teens and twenties at the start of the new millennium. You can read all about them in the Millennial Study of the Pew Research Group.

There seems to be an overly optimistic belief that chasing the under 35 set will help nonprofits raise significantly more money. Discussions about the latest crowdfunding online platforms seem to be all the rage. And of course, everyone wants to snag the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.

Yet all the data shows that these young people have quite limited financial means, with the median net worth of those under 35 of $6,676. Influential nonprofit fundraising blogger Jeff Brooks even goes so far as to say that the young people nonprofits should be cultivating are those between the ages of 50 and 65. See Future Fundraising Now.

At the Yale conference, Huffington Post blogger Kari Saratovsky asked (tongue in cheek):

“Why does the nonprofit sector love to hate millennials? Maybe because they make us work hard for their limited time, limited dollars and limited attention span.”

So here’s what I’m thinking we should all be thinking about. And why we need millennials to be part of those conversations.

  • If you depend on major gifts from family foundations, there’s a generational shift happening already . Those solid relationships that you’ve come to depend on aren’t so solid anymore, as giving decisions are passed down to the next generation (G2s? G3s?) which hasn’t sworn allegiance to their parents or grandparents causes.
  • Retention rates for donors continue to fall. Is that entirely because we’ve abandoned good old stewardship, including tossing out printed communications to save money? Or does it relate somehow to the growing deployment of people-to-people fundraising in our mix, where donors support each other rather than the causes they are walking, running or swimming for?
  • While good fundraising will always depend on building strong relationships, how exactly do we build lasting relationships in a crowdfunding, people-to-people, mobile driven world?
  • And what’s next on the social, technological, cultural fronts? When the ground shifts beneath our feet, how do we prepare to shift with it?

I want us to care about and include millennials in our organizations.

Not because I think they are a fountain of new dollars. And I don’t believe that if we cultivate them today they will be with us 20 years later when they grow up financially. I’m not convinced they will be living anywhere near us or are still attached to the same causes as they were when they were in their twenties (are you?).

We need to include millennials and the next generations behind them because they are much of the world as it is now and as it will be.

If we are going to remain effective, not just in raising money but also in serving our missions, we have to be smart, informed, adaptive, resilient and energetic about the work that we are doing.

When Maggie found herself living alone in her big house, she invited younger women to come be her roommates. For their company. For their energy. For their aliveness.

We, and our organizations, need to share our spaces in similar ways.

Because our nonprofits need everyone ‘s energy and knowledge, young and old, shared across the generations, to make our missions happen.

As Maggie knew.

P.S. If your board recruitment needs some new energy, we’d love to help you think about recruitment and redesign to better engage that energy and knowledge.

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