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Engaging young donors in an ageing society

Michael Moody, Ph.D., is the Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. Dr. Moody has been actively working to understand and improve philanthropy and nonprofit organizations for 25 years. He is co-author of ‘Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission’, and is currently working with Dr. Beth Breeze of the University of Kent on ‘The Philanthropy Reader’, due out from Routledge in 2016.

The rising next generation of major philanthropic donors are poised to be the most significant philanthropists in history. I make this bold claim not because these “Gen X” and “Millennial” donors are more charitably minded than previous generations. Rather, they could end up giving unprecedented amounts to charity because they have unprecedented amounts of wealth to give, and because they have a desire to be active givers earlier in their lives.

Despite this, we don’t know enough about what kind of philanthropists these rising young donors want to be. And knowing more about them will help us see how their emergence and increasing role will affect established patterns and practices in different corners of the philanthropic universe.

I had the privilege of discussing these issues at a roundtable on ‘Philanthropy and Ageing’ hosted by the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing. I was invited to share some findings from a research project I co-lead, on Next Gen Donors in the U.S., and to explore with several smart UK colleagues what these findings might mean for the future of charitable giving in an ageing society.

The punchline from our discussion, I would say, is this:

We can’t say for sure that next gen donors are less interested in giving to ageing-related causes or organisations. We can say for sure that they want to give in different ways to those causes and organisations. So whether they end up doing so will depend on how the opportunities for them to give are structured, now and in the future.

Our research finds that next gen donors give to many of the same issue areas as previous generations, and for many of the same reasons. Put another way, they are not so different in the “What” and “Why” of philanthropy.

Where they diverge from their parents and grandparents is in the “How” of giving.

Gen X and Millennial major donors want to change giving methods in a few ways: they want to be hands-on, and they want to try more philanthropic innovations, to see if those can increase impact.

Younger major donors believe that merely writing checks—and especially waiting until you retire to write checks—is the least effective way to give. They want to roll up their sleeves and help solve real problems within and alongside the organisations they support. They want to give their Time and Talent, in addition to their Treasure. And they also see a fourth “T” in their asset mix: their Ties. They want to spread the word and catalyse the gifts of Time, Talent, and Treasure from their peers.

Next gen donors are also convinced there are better ways of solving social problems and addressing social needs than the traditional charitable methods of the past. They are willing—even eager—to take a risk, to try a new tool or support a new kind of organisation, even if some of these end in failure. As hands-on donors, they figure they’ll be able to adapt from these failures and innovate anew to get to impact in the long-term.

People who are concerned about getting these significant future donors to support ageing organizations and issues would do well, then, to think carefully and creatively about how best to engage them.

Rather than asking them to contribute toward a big fundraising campaign goal, ask them to use their marketing talent to help craft the campaign. Rather than asking them to serve on a mostly ceremonial “junior board,” ask them to join a “task force” to solve some problem facing the organisation … and then to recruit their peers to join them in this work.

Engage them in smart ways now, and they will be your major donors of tomorrow.

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