Yada, Yada, Yada
No other donor demographic is more over-discussed and overrated than age.
As fundraisers, we’re obsessed with our donors’ average ages, even though there’s little we can do to push this figure up or down.
I wish I had a dime for every time inexperienced or would-be clients blanched when they learned their donors’ average ages, which usually is in the 60s or sometimes even higher. They fear their current donors soon will die off.
Before they panic and begin posting their resumes, I explain to them that charitable giving is dominated by older donors. And as one generation passes on, it’s replaced by the next.
Here’s an example I use to demonstrate this trend. I’ve been affiliated with one organization for almost 18 years, so it provides a good example of how a donor base is affected over time. When I first began work with this group, the average donor’s age was around 66. Today, it’s still in the same ballpark.
In the past 20 years, many of those original donors, maybe even the majority, certainly have died. But they’ve been replaced by others who’ve aged and moved into this donor age bracket.
Why are most donors older? Are younger people less committed to charitable causes? Absolutely not. Younger people are just as committed; they just express it in different ways. Older donors typically have more expendable income, while younger philanthropists are more likely to volunteer their services than their cash.
An example of this is Habitat for Humanity, which partners with needy families to build their own homes. The average age of volunteers who work at a building site is less than the average age of typical direct-mail donors who financially support the organization.
But there’s more
Fear of a dying donor base isn’t the only issue of concern to nonprofit organizations. In this age-phobic time when commercial marketers often favor younger consumers, some fundraisers try to exclude older supporters by aiming for younger donor bases.
I hear them say recruitment efforts should be targeted toward younger donors, to help bridge the age gap. In the end, most of these efforts quickly fail for financial reasons. That’s because most such strategies are akin to Apple Computer Inc. spending more of its iPod advertising budget on 80-year-old prospects, since they account for such a small segment of the MP3 player market.
Even if an organization wishes to dramatically reduce its donor base’s average age through aggressive recruitment efforts, it’s difficult to achieve.
In the 1990s, I worked with one organization that had an average donor age in the low 70s. My firm instituted a successful donor-recruitment campaign that brought in more than 1 million new supporters. Our targeting wasn’t based on age; we simply targeted every mailing list that could generate an acceptable response.
After such an aggressive effort, in which we pulled in every donor we could find, we lowered the donor base’s average age by only five or six years.
There are exceptions to any rule. Not all donor bases have such high average ages. AIDS organizations usually have a younger donor base. Women’s rights groups often have younger donors. Organizations that have major, short-term successes on the Internet — such as those that raked in a lot of money after Hurricane Katrina — also might demonstrate at least brief downward trends in their donor bases’ average ages.
None of these cases are due to targeted efforts based on age. So why waste breath on the issue?
Jim Hussey is president of Adams Hussey & Associates. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.