Popularly defined as those individuals born between the mid-1960s and late 1970s, Generation X is the most maligned and enigmatic generational cohort of the 20th century. Often characterized as aloof, cynical and fiercely independent, Gen-Xers have been largely overlooked by charitable organizations as an active philanthropic-giving group.
Even now, as the generation enters its prime employment and household-formation years, targeted appeals tend to place more emphasis on Generation Y, or the “echo boomers” — those technologically savvy individuals born after 1980 — and the baby boomers themselves, for their obvious size and spending power.
According to a 2001 United Way Public Opinion Poll, conducted by UWA Research Services, younger investors between the ages of 18 and 34 responded more positively to charitable messages than the older baby boomers. However, survey results indicated that most had not become involved with charitable organizations, and nearly 62 percent had not even been asked to contribute or volunteer.
The stigma of the slacker certainly has haunted many wealth-holding Gen-Xers throughout their professional lives, and even though they represent the smallest of the cohorts at roughly 40 million, these cantankerous misers have demonstrated a will to affect change with unique charitable solutions.
“As individuals, they see that applying themselves and their resources as a unit is not only the way to be successful in business but the way to make a [disproportionate] social impact in the community,” says Paul G. Schervish, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College.
A tough sell
Schervish notes that Generation X has been distinguished by its entrepreneurial nature and views its philanthropic endeavors in the same light.
“They are recognizing a need, a demand, that outstrips the supply of resources meeting that need or demand,” Schervish says. “They see that they will affect the rate of return on their own their investment. That is by their own skills, their own money, their own abilities.”
In 2001, the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy conducted a study on behalf of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, “Agent-Animated Wealth and Philanthropy: The Dynamics of Accumulation and Allocation Among High-Tech Donors,” to create a picture of high-tech donors’ giving habits.
The study revealed that high-tech donors — many of them entrepreneurial Gen-Xers who made their fortunes during the dot-com boom — require organizations they support to be more perceptive about the needs of the people they serve. And unlike most groups of wealth holders, high-tech donors are relatively young, unmarried or recently married, and often conduct business in a locale in which they did not grow up. Most of their businesses are not locale specific and could be operated anywhere.
Respondents cited several factors as limiting more extensive and intensive philanthropic involvement at this stage of their lives. Among them: not enough desired wealth; assets tied up in business activities; and the need for more education about different methods and strategies of giving.
What’s more, high-tech donors tend not to be active participants in religious congregations, a starkly different characteristic than that of previous wealth-holding generations.
A leap of faith? Not quite.
Generation X, as a cohort, gives significantly less to charity than the baby boomer and prewar generations, according to “Giving Across Generations,” a paper published in 2003 by Richard Steinberg and Mark Wilhelm at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
The study was conducted by the University of Michigan and tracked the philanthropic giving of more than 700 families. Among the key findings: Generation X contributes an average annual gift of $532 (53 percent); boomers give $1,662 (75 percent); and the prewar generation donates $1,788 (80 percent).
But when it comes to faith-based and religious charities, Generation X contributes substantially less ($339 or 31 percent), compared to boomers ($991 or 51 percent) and the prewar generation ($1,168 or 62 percent).
“It’s not at all surprising that Generation X gives less than other generations, because they are younger, they have families to raise, and they have less income and wealth,” Steinberg says. “It was surprising, though, that there was such a big gap after we removed the effects of differences in income and wealth.”
But while Generation X has yet to reach its full earning and giving potential, J. Walker Smith, Ph.D., president of Yankelovich Partners, a marketing-services consultancy specializing in lifestyle trends and customer-targeting solutions, says Gen-Xers have a desire to get engaged in a more meaningful, authentic and committed way.
“Generation X is at a life stage right now where it may be very difficult for them to be involved financially,” Smith says. “But the fears and concerns that a lot of [marketers] had initially about Gen-Xers being harder to retain and grow in a relationship have not been borne out yet.”
Their behaviors suggest a need for direct involvement, as well as a personal connection, with a nonprofit organization, Smith says. They also want to be more in control of their marketing and media experiences — when and how they give. And, most importantly, they will show loyalty to organizations that measure up to their standards of integrity and authenticity.
“[Direct-response] fundraisers need to find ways in which all media can be brought together — the new and the old,” Smith says. “This is a multitasking generation accustomed to myriad mediums. Communicating with them in that style certainly would resonate more strongly.”
The Internet effect
While many nonprofit organizations discount Generation X as being too young, skeptical and individualistic to make a real impact on fundraising, others see it as an opportunity to build relationships.
Take Naral Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group based in Washington, D.C. In 2003, the organization launched a Generation Pro-Choice section on its Web site to recruit young women as activists and donors by educating them about reproductive issues. Readers who sign up online receive an electronic newsletter with news, columns and opportunities to network.
Generation Pro-Choice’s target audience, mainly prospects in their 20s and up, are initially recruited as activists, then are asked to become members of Naral at a substantially lower annual rate. According to Jennifer Donahue, deputy director of membership for Naral Pro-Choice America, the organization recognizes that this age demographic doesn’t traditionally give at the same levels as its typical members.
“The approach is to build these people from the ground up at a young age, turn them into activists, then convert them into committed donors,” Donahue says. “As the future generation of our movement, we recognize that bonding them to us and our issue, and making sure that they understand the importance of supporting our work financially, will work to our advantage.”
As an admitted Gen-Xer herself, Donahue acknowledges that most of her peers have never experienced life without the freedom to choose.
“Women who were born after Roe v. Wade became the law of the land [c. 1973] don’t necessarily know the core issues, so when we’re able to engage them online, and talk to them in way that’s relevant to their lives, we feel that we’re helping them in a way that the traditional language of the movement can’t.”