Feeling the Boom
They grew up in postwar suburbia, sheltered snugly in the first paradigmatic, single-family homes. They were raised to fear the Reds and adore Ed Sullivan. They were the first children to get hooked on television.
Now, with the first wave of baby boomers nearing retirement age, and many starting to receive inheritances from their parents, America’s largest and most compelling generation presents an unprecedented fundraising opportunity — and a challenge — to nonprofits.
Born between 1946 and 1964, the 77 million baby boomers in the United States compose a drastically different generational demographic than that of their parents. According to a study released late last year by national nonprofit coalition Independent Sector and AARP, “Experience at Work: Volunteering and Giving Among Americans 50 and Over,” the boomer population is more likely to have graduated from college and volunteered in their youth — strong indicators of high civic involvement.
Over the next 10 years, the over-50 population in the United States is expected to increase by 18.3 million people — including 13.9 million between the ages of 50 and 64, the report says. And because these individuals will still be working, they’re expected to become the most generous givers and have more time for volunteer activities as they approach retirement.
Many fundraisers and researchers also point to the vast wealth transfer that has started to occur: Boomers are due to receive a collective inheritance of at least $7.2 trillion, according to the Social Welfare Research Institute at Boston College.
“Nonprofits would be well served to customize their approach to recruit [baby boomers],” says Diana Aviv, president and CEO of Independent Sector. “… Non-profits ought to seize this opportunity to engage older Americans.”
How boomer donors differ
Boomers are far more likely to be college educated than their parents, as financial-assistance programs were more prevalent around the time they were coming of age. The boomer demographic also has more discretionary income, according to statistics. And boomers have forestalled certain life events, such as having babies in their 30s instead of in their 20s.
But unlike the World War II generation — dubbed the “greatest generation” by NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw — boomers desire more personal involvement in a nonprofit organization, typically in a highly active volunteer role.
“Boomers are much more results oriented,” says Dr. Timothy Seiler, director of the fundraising school at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, citing research conducted on boomers. “They want to see clear, measurable, tangible results of their gifts and the work of the nonprofit organization.”
Most boomers would not be comfortable with simply writing a check and sending it off to the local cancer society without seeing how their gift benefits the community.
Boomers have less brand loyalty, Seiler says. They shop around and test organizations much like they would shop around for a new a bank.
“[Nonprofit organizations] have to prove themselves and prove themselves repeatedly,” Seiler affirms. “Baby boomers might think twice about giving repeatedly to an institution. They will consider whether or not their own needs have been met through previous gifts.”
Not only do boomers expect a high level of accountability from nonprofits, they also tend to favor small, local organizations over large, national ones — since they could readily see the impact of their gifts — as well as different types of charities. Where their parents give frequently to religious and faith-based charities, boomers direct their philanthropic attention to “greener” matters.
“Perhaps the most compelling thing we found in researching baby boomers is that they do not give as much to religious causes as the previous generation did,” Seiler says. “We think that’s important because the majority of philanthropy in the United States today goes to religion, and giving to religion tends to have a positive effect on giving to other causes as well.”
The issues that attract boomers’ attention and charity dollars tend to be connected to progressive causes: the environment, disease prevention, gay marriage, stem-cell research, civil rights, abortion, education reform, and child welfare, among others.
More likely to volunteer
Not only are boomers giving to starkly different organizations than their parents gave to, but their volunteering tends to be more active, local and family oriented.
“Boomers are big into volunteering, especially when it involves their children in some way,” says Jeff Love, director of strategic issues research at AARP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to making life better for people 50 and over. “They are the soccer coach, the PTA chairman, the Cub Scout den mother.”
AARP has conducted extensive polling and tracking of baby boomers to determine the real differences between their generation and their parents’ generation.
“We’ve been thinking about [baby boomers] for 10 years now — ever since we discovered that they were getting older — and that our membership will be largely composed of [baby boomers], as they move into the older cohort,” Love says. “The main thing we found in studying this group is that they want things on their terms.”
For example, most of AARP’s baby-boomer members prefer not to have a list generated for them of assisted-living facilities to research for their parents (one of the organization’s services). They prefer instead for AARP to suggest places to visit so they can unearth the information for themselves.
“[Boomers] want an organization to facilitate them being able to do things, and not the organization simply doing things for them,” Love avows. “We serve as a resource and adjust our programs to give them what they want and need.”
A diverse generation
From its post-World War II beginnings, the baby boomer generation has had a substantial impact on society. Boomers are more racially and ethnically diverse than older generations, with households almost evenly divided between those with children and those without. Remember, the generation itself spans 19 years, so the lifestages of older and younger boomers differ. (Today, 40-year-olds are considered baby boomers. They did not experience Vietnam on any level, nor were they a part of the counterculture revolution in the 1960s.)
One thing’s for sure: Self-reliance, independence and indulgence are all generational traits that will lead to a unique retirement, and hopefully — for nonprofits, anyway — a philanthropic one.