There’s something on the minds of the leaders of nearly every nonprofit organization, large or small: How can nonprofits capture new, younger audiences amid a shrinking donor pool?
Across issue areas, nonprofits are seeing fewer and fewer small-dollar donors stepping up to give. Meanwhile, wealthy donors are donating more money, more often, but trend older and whiter than the rest of the donor demographic.
Compared to older generations, young people are less likely to give to established nonprofits and more likely to give directly to individuals or grassroots groups, according to new research. It’s a trend I’ve observed in my own networks and something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Following the Dobbs decision, my Instagram feed was flooded with links to local abortion funds. After the Uvalde school shooting, I donated to victims’ GoFundMe pages. A colleague told me that, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria, her college Facebook group offered links to victims’ funds.
While these are all worthwhile ways to give and support real people impacted by real crises, responding to natural disasters or addressing issues that require policy solutions, such as rampant gun violence, need a different level of sustained resources and logistics capacity that is only possible with a well-funded organization.
How can established nonprofits win the trust of small-dollar, younger donors—particularly racially diverse donors who have long been excluded from traditional philanthropy—in order to realize the change they want to see in the world?
A crisis of faith
Let’s face it: Younger people aren’t feeling too confident in institutions these days.
They’re far less likely than their elders to trust business leaders, elected officials, or government—the latter winning only 25 percent of young people’s trust, according to a 2019 Pew Research study. This is the generation that experienced childhood in the long shadow of 9/11 and the Iraq war, adolescence in the uncertainty of the 2008 financial crisis, and young adulthood under a divisive presidency and global pandemic. Who can blame them?
But while Gen Z and younger millennials are broadly disillusioned with institutions, they are actually more likely than their elders to believe in social justice and that they can make a difference in the world, according to Morning Consult’s Gen Z Worldview Tracker. That’s cause for celebration—and an opportunity for nonprofits to lean into.
Despite amassing significantly less wealth than older generations, nearly half of Gen Zers (43 percent) have given to an individual’s personal cause on GoFundMe or a similar platform in the last year, GoFundMe’s COO Soraya Alexander told Forbes. Younger donors are in fact more likely to adjust their finances so they can continue donating even when economic times are tough.
“This shows just how important giving back is to younger generations,” said Alexander. “They vote with their dollars and are willing to make sacrifices to give to the causes they believe in.”
A moment of opportunity
Let’s think about what makes a GoFundMe page compelling to a potential Gen Z donor. Funds go directly to the impacted individuals, so the donor is confident that their money isn’t being used for cushy salaries or overhead costs. Donors normally find a GoFundMe campaign through their own networks or even have a personal connection to the beneficiaries—who are transparent about how they will spend the donor’s money, showing tangibly how much $25, $50, or $1,000 will impact them.
There are ingredients to this secret sauce that legacy nonprofits can adopt in order to appeal to younger donors. In fact, some findings from a new report from Classy bear this out.
Personal networks are all-important. A friend or colleague endorsing an organization is a huge factor for younger donors, who are 1.5 times as likely to become aware of a cause through their co-workers and four times as likely to find out about a cause via an influencer or celebrity.
Leverage rapid-response moments. Gen Z and millennial donors are 1.6 times as likely to be motivated to donate after a news event or crisis. When the world’s attention is focused on your organization’s cause, you can raise more funds in a week than in an entire quarter.
Get your website in shape. Gen Z and millennial donors say the most important factor in deciding whether or not to donate to an organization is what they learn on its website. Make sure your website prominently features impact statistics, easy ways to donate, and personal stories from those your organization serves.
Make your communications frequent and pithy. Younger donors prefer email updates at least bi-monthly, unlike older donors, who prefer quarterly updates. Younger generations are used to a constant influx of information and are not as bothered by frequent communications—just make sure they’re straight and to-the-point.
Lean into your younger donors as advocates. Younger donors are three times as likely to advocate for an organization as are older donors. This opens up opportunities for peer-to-peer fundraising or creating compulsively-shareable social content about your organization.
It’s tempting for nonprofits to continue a strategy of eking out every dollar they can from their existing donor pool that skews disproportionately white and older. But building up a pipeline of younger, more diverse givers will pay enormous dividends for organizations well into the future. This emerging cohort is showing early signs of being among the most generous and philanthropic generation in history, and it’s on nonprofit leaders to make their case to earn their support.
Young donors want a cause to believe in—so let’s give them one.