The Great Generation Divide in Fundraising
“My name is Pamela Barden, and I am a Baby Boomer.” There. I admitted it publicly. I am one of the 75.4 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964.
I used to be part of the largest generation in the United States, but, in 2015, we let our guards down, and those pesky Millennials surpassed us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These “kids” are now 15 to 34 years old and growing restless as some of us Baby Boomers take our time about retiring.
Whether you are a Baby Boomer or a Millennial—or stuck in between as part of the generation known as Gen X—you have probably figured out that Millennials and Baby Boomers are two different animals when it comes to donating to charity. That’s to be expected given the different events that shaped the generations.
Possibly more than at any time in my 35-plus years in fundraising, it’s evident to me that a one-size-fits-all program isn’t going to cut it; nonprofit organizations need both Baby Boomer and Millennial donors—and Gen X and Silent Generation donors as well. We have to figure out how to be in more places and become proficient in more fundraising skills if we are going to have a healthy fundraising program today, in 10 years and even in 20 years. And yet it often seems, in fundraising circles at least, that territorial lines have been drawn and full-scale war between the “old-school” and the “cutting-edge" fundraisers is just around the corner.
Last fall, consulting company Age Wave, in partnership with Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management, released findings of a study entitled "Giving in Retirement: America’s Longevity Bonus". Among the findings was the fact that Baby Boomers are more likely than their parents to learn how a nonprofit will use their money before donating and also expect to be able to direct how that donation will be used. In other words, Baby Boomers are demanding proof of effectiveness both before and after they give.
Millennials, on the other hand, “want to be inspired, and they want to be actively involved, whether that means pedaling for a purpose or swinging a hammer,” according to the Boston Globe's Melissa Schorr.
As I talk to younger adults starting their careers at nonprofit organizations, or to other Baby Boomers who remember (like I do) when the biggest fear among elder fundraisers was that Baby Boomers were not showing the same philanthropic tendencies as their parents, I hear the same message over and over. The words are different, but the sentiment is the same: “We just can’t afford to waste our limited time and money on those [insert name of generation]." Many of us who have the benefit of hindsight see Baby Boomers moving past the accumulation phase of life and into the disposable-income phase, and we remember what that can mean in terms of significant gifts and bequests. Younger fundraisers may instead see Baby Boomers who are set in their ways, still writing checks and reading letters instead of demanding mobile-optimized websites and proof in 144 character posts.
The reality is both Baby Boomers and Millennials are essential to a balanced fundraising program. Baby Boomers may be the bedrock of the next 10 to 30 years, but Millennials are the future and will become more and more critical to nonprofits as time passes. The wise fundraiser can’t afford to ostracize either group. Writing off Baby Boomer donors as old-fashioned and high maintenance is just as wrong as writing off Millennials as self-focused and fickle.
As fundraisers, we need to be open-minded about methods of fundraising. There aren’t “good” methods and “bad” methods (other than those that are unethical)–there are only those that work and those that don’t. And some of those work for one group of people but not others. This makes our job harder because we have to learn to incorporate more methods than ever before in order to have a strong fundraising program that looks to today’s needs, as well as tomorrow’s needs.
This old dog admits that I am growing weary of the endless debate of direct mail versus Twitter or galas versus peer-to-peer fundraising. We may not be able to do everything, but the place to expend our energy is in doing a better job of diversifying our fundraising. Otherwise, we may not be around to enjoy the legacies of the Baby Boomers and the deepening involvement of the Millennials.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.