Millennial DNA: 99+ Percent Human
Millennial studying is the navel-gazing of our time. We spend crazy time doing it. Don’t take our word for it, ask the Google machine. A Google search of “Millennials and charity” returns 210,000 hits, while searching “Millennials and nonprofits” gets you a whopping 434,000. The reason for the interest is understandable. This group, born between 1981 and 2001, represents 75 million Americans. They are beginning to exert an influence on our culture and will do more so as time goes by, as “Generation Y,” as they’re sometimes called, assumes more positions of leadership in the next five to 10 years.
But let’s be honest, the nonprofit world is less interested in broad cultural impact and is more focused on “engagement.” As in, how can we interact with this exceptional group of people to get them to engage with our nonprofits more, in terms of both time and money? Unfortunately, there is good reason for concern…
An ominously titled study, “Good Intentions, a Gap in Action” from the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, reports an all-time high among college students’ desire to do good. But the study also shows those same students’ actions are inconsistent with their aspirations. The number of college students engaging in volunteerism is actually the lowest of all the groups measured, surpassed by high school students, young adults and middle-aged people.
And because past is prologue, the report shows that many of these college slactivists aren’t going to volunteer as adults, either. Bad news because many organizations use volunteerism as their foot-in-the-door technique that leads to future donor behavior.
In 2016 the DC-based polling company Gallup published a report titled, “Millennials: How They Live and Work.” Much like an anthropological study of some native aboriginal culture, the report asked the question, “Are Millennials really that different?” Their answer was a resounding yes—“profoundly so,” adding, “Millennials are changing the very will of the world. So, we, too, must change.”
Really? (Insert eye roll and headshake.) The report lists six ways Millennials are different in the workplace from homo sapiens from other generations:
- Millennials don't just work for a paycheck—they want a purpose.
- Millennials are not pursuing job satisfaction—they are pursuing development.
- Millennials don't want bosses—they want coaches.
- Millennials don't want annual reviews—they want ongoing conversations.
- Millennials don't want to fix their weaknesses—they want to develop their strengths.
- “It's not just my job—it's my life.”
As we were reading this list, we were struck by how well these six needs track with a theory of human motivation psychologists call “self-determination theory.” Economist Daniel Pink writes about this research and what it tells us about what people find to be meaningful in his 2009 book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”
According to self-determination theory, three factors lead to better performance and satisfaction in all aspects of peoples’ lives—at work, at school and at home. People achieve a sense of personal satisfaction when they have the opportunity to experience:
- Autonomy—being self-directed,
- Mastery—improving at something important, and
- Purpose—involvement in something meaningful beyond themselves.
Motivating for maximum performance begins with autonomy. “People need autonomy over what they do (tasks), when they do it (time), who they do it with (team) and how they do it (technique).” When these conditions are met, people become engaged, and engagement leads to mastery, becoming better at something that matters. Finally, the opportunity to be involved in a greater good results in a “purpose motive,” which many people embrace as central to their lives.
If you look at the Gallup study, autonomy, mastery and purpose map almost exactly to what those Millennials say they want. That’s why we reject the idea that Millennials are “profoundly” different from Baby Boomers or Generation Xers. We’re much more alike than different regarding what we find to be motivating. Given, Millennials do have serious addictions to their phones, outsize senses of entitlement and a less than average capacity to forge strong personal connections. So, if the same things that motivate the rest of us motivate them, we may just have to get better at delivering it to them.
One example of great delivery is the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, affectionately known as THON. It is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. THON annually engages more than 16,000 student volunteers. The group generates awareness and raises funds for the fight against pediatric cancer, benefitting the Four Diamonds Pediatric Cancer Research Center at the Penn State College of Medicine. Since 1977, THON has raised $147 million in the fight to conquer childhood cancer, with $10 million raised in 2017 alone.
In the final analysis, Gallup was right, sort of. We do need to change, but we mostly need to get better at offering this audience exactly what it says it wants. Which is, fundamentally, not terribly different from other generations. THON delivers the three things that people find rewarding, and in large doses: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Take a good look at how they make it happen. THON’s value may go far beyond the fundraising they do. They may show us the path to the Millennial.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.