Every year for the last decade or so, organizations have shared their ideas for engaging millennials with me and then asked for my feedback. Thinking about it over the holidays, I realized I received about the same number of approaches in 2018 as in previous years.
I've been studying millennial cause engagement with the Case Foundation for most of that time and have shared all kinds of research findings and insights through the Millennial Impact Project and the newer Cause and Social Influence initiative. Organizations seek me out for advice about their own particular situation, especially as it relates to what is now the largest generation in America. Typically, they do so for one of the following reasons:
- they have not been able to cultivate a younger donor base;
- their past success is being challenged by new ways of looking at their issue, new technologies, or both;
- their donor engagement levels have plateaued; and/or
- their revenues have been trending downward and the future looks grim.
After a decade of fielding such approaches, I can usually sniff out whether an organization has what it takes to change — and by that, I mean the kind of change needed not only to attract a new and younger audience, but to engage any person, regardless of age, with an interest in their cause.
Change is hard. It demands a willingness on the part of leadership and staff to leave the status quo behind and push in the direction of a new guiding vision. In other words, it requires people to be fearless.
This kind of approach to change is detailed beautifully by Jean Case in her new book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose.
In her book, Jean describes a set of five principles that can be used by any individual or organization to become more relevant and valued in today's fast-changing world. The five principles are:
1: Make a Big Bet. To build a movement or drive real change, organizations (or individuals) need to step outside their comfort zone and make an audacious bet on something they ordinarily would reject as too ambitious or difficult. And the risks associated with a big bet, says Jean, can be mitigated, if organizations are willing to learn and course correct along the way.
If you want to target a younger demographic, go ahead and do it in a big but measurable way that will teach you something. A/B testing one line in an email campaign to a purchased list is a small bet involving little risk and with little potential for changing anything. Building a canvassing team to collect emails at, say, a popular music festival and then tracking engagement after the event is over is a bigger bet involving more time and expense for an unknown return. Creating a mobile unit to travel to locales around the country where younger people tend to live, work, and play and then identifying influencers, micro-influencers, and potential supporters is a much bigger, more expensive bet and thus a much bigger risk. But it's big bets like that which lead to new discoveries and have the potential to propel your cause or movement forward.
2: Be Bold, Take Risks. We all need space and the permission to take risks, especially If we are looking to advance a cause or build a movement. Absent a willingness to take risks, we inevitably become complacent and are unlikely to ever tap into the creativity and enthusiasm needed to drive real change.
Internally, then, organizational cultures need to change from a stance of avoiding risk to one in which it is embraced. In practice, cause leaders should document the risks and lessons that may result from a new idea, campaign, or approach, then inform and reassure staff that though an action has its risks, the potential outcomes and learnings to be gleaned from it are worth more in the long run than not doing anything at all.
3: Make Failure Matter. Each action we take as an organization or individual brings us a step closer to defining a new hypothesis or proving an existing one. I get excited when someone calls me and says, "We tried this and it didn't work, but we learned something" — not because I want to see them fail, but because I know they're taking steps to creating an even better movement or organization built on tested methods and disciplined iteration.
Before you launch your next call to action, campaign, or event, take the time to gather from your internal stakeholders all the hypotheses you hope to test and then post them on a wall or whiteboard. Then, after the campaign or event is over, regroup and determine which of the hypotheses proved out and which didn't, what you think you learned, and what you need to test next.
4: Reach Beyond Your Bubble. "Partnership" is an overused word in the nonprofit sector. Today, being a partner is an expectation, as is finding ways to join forces with others around a common approach to social impact. That said, it tends to be the unlikely partnership that generates the most meaningful change for the issues we serve.
In other words, look beyond the tried-and-true partners you've always worked with and identify organizations and individuals in other sectors who may have a unique asset you can use to advance your cause or movement. It could be a tech company whose technology can help make your approach more impactful for your constituents, or an entity that serves the same constituency but with a different product or value proposition.
5: Let Urgency Conquer Fear. The time to take action is now. Not tomorrow. Today. It's imperative for your organization to develop a sense of urgency about its issue, because a sense of urgency is often the only thing that drives us to find time to make change. Look at any direct mail appeal you received in December: I bet every single one pointed to the urgency of the situation — and most of them probably included an explicit deadline In their call to action ("Act before midnight on December 31!").
Not convinced? What if I told you your organization has a built-in structural need to engage its donors and supporters right now. Give up? It's this: 18 percent of the contacts in your database go bad each year. If you don’t address your donor engagement problem now, you'll be launching your next campaign or call to action already behind. Today is always the best time to experiment, to adopt a new approach, to try something risky that may lead to a breakthrough.
In her book, Jean invites us to ask ourselves, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" — and to answer fearlessly. As I hope I've helped you see, being fearless doesn't mean you have to climb the highest mountain, swim the deepest ocean, or cross the hottest desert. And it doesn't mean you have to gamble your organization's future on an all-or-nothing bet. What it does require is thinking big, being intentional, making (and learning) from mistakes, and taking action, even if it's a small step — today and not tomorrow. You can do it. Good luck, and Happy New Year!
Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, and lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence.