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Charitable Giving

What makes millennials give to charity?

Fancy dinners and pleas for checks don’t resonate with younger donors. They want a deeper connection to a cause.

Robert Neubecker

TIME TO GET out your checkbook. Wait — what’s a checkbook again?

That thousand-dollar-a-plate charity gala may seem hopelessly out of touch, not to mention financially out of reach, to your average debt-ridden, tech-savvy millennial. But that doesn’t mean that Boston-area nonprofits aren’t devising new ways to win this generation’s philanthropic hearts. This cohort — the 75 million or so Americans born between the early 1980s and late 1990s — already gives in a far different way: Witness the rise of #GivingTuesday, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and Livestrong crowd-sourced funding campaigns. Young donors want to be inspired, and they want to be actively involved, whether that means pedaling for a purpose or swinging a hammer.


“Millennials like to think of themselves as not just donors, but investors,” says Meg Fowler Tripp, director of editorial strategy at Boston branding firm Sametz Blackstone Associates, who advises area nonprofits from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to Project Bread. “They don’t give out of obligation. They give out of a sense of mission.”

“You want them to feel engaged,” says Mike Grace, the Museum of Science’s director of development. “Millennials like that feeling of giving back beyond that check.”

They may only make up a small chunk of donors — one study on generational giving by nonprofit advising firm Blackbaud found that 18- to 32-year-olds contribute only about 11 percent of total charitable giving, compared with 43 percent from baby boomers. But charities and nonprofits hope that grooming a relationship now will pay off down the line when this cohort reaches peak earnings potential.

“Nonprofits know the young adult you strike up a relationship with today can become a longtime supporter down the road,” says Jim Klocke, chief executive officer at the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. Klocke doesn’t believe traditional fund-raising galas will die off; they’ll “evolve.”

“There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. But people want to connect with friends and peers without having to take four laps of the ballroom,” Klocke says. “People want events to be interactive, through a smartphone [that] puts you in touch with other friends in the room.”


ONE POPULAR TACTIC to cultivate the next generation of givers has been the creation of the “young professional” group or committee, often with a cutesy nickname — from “The Pride” at Zoo New England to “The Innovators” at the Museum of Science. Many are now creating fund-raising events designed with maximum youth appeal, from lower-price-point boozy events like Brew at the Zoo and Science Uncorked to an annual cornhole tournament organized by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay. And physical events, from Project Bread’s 20-mile Walk for Hunger or the MS Society’s Climb to the Top of the John Hancock tower, are hardly designed with the arthritic in mind.

Justin Kang, 28, executive director of City Awake, which serves Boston’s social impact organizations, says nonprofits can more effectively reach millennials by giving them “something tangible to do,” such as volunteering or applying their skill sets. In addition, he says, groups must “really communicate” their story to connect with younger donors.

Moved by learning of a family friend’s child who was diagnosed with a rare genetic aging disorder, CT Ransdell, 29, development director at the Design Museum Foundation, decided to do the “Zach-Attack 100 Mile Run,” admittedly setting a “crazy-high” goal for himself. Ultimately, using a First Giving site, he raised $5,100 in small donations from friends and family for the Progeria Research Foundation, based in Peabody. “I think millennials don’t necessarily donate to organizations,” he says. “They support causes.”


Nonprofits are also finding that millennials are largely indifferent to traditional solicitations, either through the mail or a maudlin TV ad. “The [fund-raising] letter in the envelope, that’s not working,” says the science museum’s Grace, who sent a solicitation to 1,000 potential young members a year ago that was largely a bust. “It wasn’t a great response,” he admits. “You need that multichannel approach.” By contrast, when the museum’s beloved “mascot” Cliff, a triceratops fossil, was at risk of being sold this summer, a social media campaign using the hashtag #KeepCliff helped raise $40,000 of the $850,000 needed to stave off his departure.

Millennials respond wildly to social media campaigns because “they want to share the message easily, saying: ‘Hey, I gave here. You should, too,’ ” Tripp says, spotlighting more successful ones like charity: water, which has a popular birthday gift project that lets users solicit donations in the amount of their age in lieu of a present, or Movember, where men share their (often laughable) attempts at growing a mustache to raise money for men’s health. Animal rescue organizations “are killing it on social media,” Tripp says. “Everyone shares a picture of a puppy because it’s cute, then they get a donation,” whereas tearjerker commercials only prompt millennials to change the channel, she says.

POWER OF THE PURSE is also key. Instead of making “one-off” charitable donations, millennials “are more likely to integrate their causes into daily life by buying products that support sustainable farming or ‘fair trade’ principles,” said a 2012 report on The Millennial Consumer by the Boston Consulting Group. And witness the popularity of brands that actively support charitable initiatives, such as Toms Shoes and Warby Parker eyeglasses, which donate products to needy people overseas through their buy a pair, give a pair programs.


“Unlike earlier generations, millennials tend not to compartmentalize their giving,” says Christen Graham, president of Giving Strong, a Portland, Maine, social impact consulting firm. They consider giving back through their daily routines, she says in an e-mail: “Do I have a sustainability-minded workplace? Where can I take a volunteer vacation?” Graham adds, “Instead of funding nonprofits, they will focus on a combination of charitable gifts, volunteer time, and impact investments.”

Companies are finding that to attract this talent pool, they need to provide on-site workplace philanthropy, from sponsored days of service to matching contributions. An organization’s charitable commitment is a key factor these applicants consider later in the hiring process, according to the Millennial Impact Report, an annual survey conducted by research group Achieve. “There is a hunger . . .  for work not just to be the place you get a paycheck, but a part of your community and connected to society’s challenges,” says Klocke of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. “It helps employers and employees round out their professional lives. There are thousands of examples in Greater Boston, most visibly the [Boston] Marathon.”


Charity startups are appearing everywhere in response to the perception that established groups don’t steward their donations effectively, Tripp says. In Blackbaud’s generational giving study, 57 percent of the millennials surveyed reported a desire to directly see the impact of their donations. “They respond to a culture of innovation,” Tripp says. “Millennials want to be engaged by charity brands that are doing things better, innovating, solving a problem.” Some may even go further. “They say, ‘I don’t like that organization, the way they do it.’ ”

Instead of encouraging the charity to change from within, “they say, ‘Screw that; I’m going to start my own.’ ”

Internet entrepreneur Tom O’Keefe founded Brookline-based Flutter this summer out of a sense that charity auctions are unfair. “They exclude the less fortunate from winning and partaking in charity,” he says in an e-mail, “and they exclude most millennials from donating to charity.”

Instead, users each donate $10 for a chance to win a uniquely crafted experience, like a private tour of Fenway Park or a Barbados vacation, with proceeds going to the organizing charity. “Millennials are a caring group, but they feel that their small dollar donation won’t make a difference,” O’Keefe says. “However, when you pool thousands together, it makes a huge difference.” The Barbados trip, for example, raised $3,420 for Boston’s Save the Harbor environmental group.

One criticism of millennials by traditionalists — who dub it “slacktivism” — is the conviction that driving awareness via social media, such as retweeting or sharing memes, is as valid a form of support as actually opening their wallets.

Will posting your avatar as a cartoon character to oppose child abuse really make a difference? Or turning your Facebook profile rainbow-hued to support marriage equality? Charitable causes cannot get by on spreading knowledge alone, says Tripp, and simply letting people know about a cause isn’t enough to drive support. People have to care about it and have some relationship with it to give.

But Klocke remains optimistic about this generation’s potential. “For every 10 people who do that retweet, three of them are going to do something down the road,” he says. “I think the engagement we’re seeing from millennials, and the innovations, have the potential to take nonprofit support to greater levels than it’s ever been before.”


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Melissa Schorr is a contributing editor at the Globe Magazine. Send comments to