As a nonprofit leader, you'll be delighted to learn that new research affirms what most of us knew: Americans are generous. In fact, this year’s edition of Giving USA found that charitable giving by individuals in the U.S. was up nearly 4 percent in 2016, hitting an all-time high.
But as The Chronicle of Philanthropy notes in How America Gives, a recently released analysis of American giving patterns, these gifts are coming from fewer people. In 2015, the Chronicle notes,
only 24 percent of taxpayers reported a charitable gift....That’s down from 2000 to 2006, years when that figure routinely reached 30 or 31 percent....
While the Chronicle suggests the drop off could be due to a decrease in the number of Americans itemizing deductions on their tax returns, they also point to other possibilities: the lingering after effects of the Great Recession, an increase in the number of struggling middle-class families, more competition for fewer dollars.
And then there's the millennial factor. The generation born between 1980 and 2000 is the largest in American history, and as the Chronicle notes, "it's well known that [millennials] aren't embracing traditional ideas of giving."
It's a trend that's reflected in our own research. Indeed, Phase 2 of our 2017 Millennial Impact Reportfound that the millennial generation doesn't rank giving — or volunteering — as all that meaningful in terms of effecting change. In the study, survey respondents were asked to rank their typical cause/social issue-related behaviors in order of how influential they believed each to be. Out of ten actions, volunteering for a cause or organization ranked sixth while giving ranked eighth — well behind other actions such as signing a petition, attending a march or rally, voting, or taking to social media to share one's views.
In other words, when it comes to creating change, millennials seem to favor what we call activist-type behaviors to more traditional forms of cause engagement (like donating and volunteering). And it isn't just millennials: NPR noted earlier this year that the election of Donald Trump ignited grassroots activism — on both the left and right — at a level "never seen before."
Whether politically motivated or not, a clear trend is emerging: People across the country are looking for more effective ways to bring about the kind of change they'd like to see, and the actions they're taking don't necessarily start with (or sometimes even include) giving or volunteering.
For nonprofits that rely on donations from individuals, this poses a problem. While it's good that people are passionate and want to get involved with issues they care deeply about, cash, for nonprofit organizations, still matters — and often is the most important factor in an organization's ability to do its work and advance its mission.
What's a nonprofit leader to do? And what can nonprofit organizations do to address this shift in behavior?
Here are three things to keep in mind as you look to activate a new generation of supporters:
1. Make it about the issue. In my previous post, I looked at some of the things nonprofits should be doing to turn one-time donors into loyal and engaged supporters. And one of those things is articulating how a small action by a supporter can connect with other small actions to create bigger impact with respect to an issue or cause.
The same is true when you are looking to cultivate and/or strengthen relationships with your existing supporters. People give and get involved with an issue through an organization, not because of an organization. Think about it: I'm more likely to become involved with Pencils of Promise not because someone told me that PoP was doing great work and its focus is on education but because I’m passionate about quality education for all kids and PoP does great work in that space.
2. Don't just run a campaign, build a movement. It's easy for nonprofit development professional and fundraisers to get hung up in the wash-rinse-repeat campaign cycle. At the start of the year, your fiscal calendar is already blocked out with various appeals, volunteer drives, and fundraising events — so many, in fact, that you barely have to time to think. But how are they connected? What are you doing between campaigns to maintain the engagement level of your supporters and continuously deepen their connection to your issue?
To truly make a difference, you need to activate your supporters and followers at every level of engagement, moving them along a continuum from having a more-than-passing interest in your issue to actually standing up and taking action on behalf of it. Campaigns have a role to play in that, but every campaign (and all your communications) should be designed to deepen an individual's engagement to the point where she feels herself to be an actual member of a movement and is willing to introduce others to the cause.
3. Update your organization's structure. Because of the resource constraints most nonprofits have to deal with, activism and advocacy often end up taking a back seat to core operating functions. If you're going to build a movement predicated on greater levels of supporter engagement, however, you're going to need a different kind of organizational structure.
Which means you should align that structure in ways that engage and support your audience today, rather than next month, next year, or at some happy point in the future. A good place to start is adding a director of advocacy or constituent engagement to your leadership team and giving them a set of responsibilities focused on movement building and donor cultivation, not just fundraising.
In this new era, it's vital that nonprofit leaders change their thinking to more closely align with where and how a rising generation of potential supporters wants to be involved with the issues and causes that matter to them. In other words, if you want to create lasting change, don't focus on your organization; focus on connecting people to your issue through your organization.
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and marketing agency for causes, and the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.