How I Give

A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of millennials, and how to understand the giving patterns of this inscrutable group of people born between 1980 and 1999. As one of those people, I was thinking lately about my own giving patterns, and to what extent they line up with what researchers have turned up on how my generation gives to charity.

First, context. What are the repeated themes that keep turning up in studies of millennial giving? There’s a lot of overlap, but I narrow it down to five main facets:

1 - Online giving - Clean and accessible mechanisms to give online are often the preferred method.

2 - Social integration - Embedded tools for sharing your gift to social media. Millennials are well known for their propensity for sharing, and it bears out in their giving habits.

3 - Spur of the moment -  Folks from my generation are more likely to make a gift based on something that inspires them in the moment.

4 - Less interest in loyalty to organizations - For whatever reason, millennials are less likely to support the same roster of charities year in and year out.

5 - More interest in impact and efficacy - Studies of what attracts members of my cohort to give to an organization have repeatedly found that they are most interested in signs of concrete, lasting change that will improve people’s lives.

Of course, as a millennial, I had to consider how all of this related to me.

My charitable giving can be roughly divided into two categories: planned and spontaneous. Three or four times per year my wife and I sit down and decide what causes we think have the greatest need at that time and what organizations are doing the best work for those causes. Once we have a list, we evenly divide our giving budget between them. The rest of the year, I might give in increments of $15-30 to campaigns that strike me on any given day. There is a little bit of consistency in our planned giving, but almost none in my spontaneous giving. We give online exclusively, but almost never share gifts on social media.

So how does this one-household case study line up with the broader patterns? Number one, online giving, is a big check. For me and most people my age, it is simply the fastest and most convenient way to give. For number two I am a bit of an outlier. I will be the first to admit I use social media much less than many people my age, but the fact is that if I hit ‘share’ every time I contributed to a campaign my feed would be almost nothing else.

Number three? Check, with a caveat. I am definitely guilty of making many spur of the moment giving decisions, although they make up a small chunk of total giving for our household. Number four bears out as well. Although many organizations will show up in our roster more than once, I can tell you it has nothing to do with loyalty. If any of those organizations stopped putting up top notch work, they would simply not show up on the list next time. There is simply no room in our meager charitable budget for anything less than maximum impact. Which brings me to number 5.

Nothing is more important to me than how much good I can do with the resources available to me, and money is no exception. I can only speak for myself, but when I am making a giving decision I am constantly wondering ‘Is this organization going to do the most lasting good with this gift?’ Is there any other charity that can do more to improve people's’ lives in this area? That questions drives research, and research gives way to a stunning array of giving options. Only the best rise to the top of the list.

So why is any of this important, aside from as an excuse for this person who was born between 1980 and 1999 to talk about himself? By itself, only as important as a single data point, but I hope that we can learn some things from this single case study. The first is a point I can’t emphasize enough: no group of people as large and diverse as a generation can be targeted with any amount of precision. You’ll make yourself crazy trying, and might even alienate the very group you’re trying to reach out to.

The second? The things that will make your organization more appealing to millennials are things that will improve your organization. Period. Do very good work, and make sure information about that work can be easily found and digested online. Use tools to make online giving as simple as possible. These sound simple, but as we all know, they require quite a lot of work. That’s OK. The work is why we’re all here. The work is what will bring your future donors here, too. Even the ones who were born between 1980 and 1999.

Stats are the spice; they are not the story

    If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen a lot of powerpoints, mailers and posters with a big honking graph front and center. If you’re anything like most people, that giant graph is a little difficult to take in. Now, I’ve waded through my share of data before and I certainly know the allure of graphs and tables (just ask my advisor, who had to leaf through over ten pages of revenue change tables in my masters research). It can be incredibly tricky to highlight the numbers that are supposed to tell the story of your success in an elegant way. As tempting as it is to put your numbers front and center, to do so is a disservice to them and you.

    Using numbers and graphics in any public-facing medium is a lot like using onions in cooking: the right amount enhances the experience, but use too much and that’s all you can taste. Because when you get down to it, the numbers are not the star of your story. That role is already filled by your mission and your work. Instead, your stats play an important supporting role.

    What should be front and center is the story that makes your work compelling. This can be the tale of your founding, a compelling client story, anything that illustrates succinctly why your work is important. Personal stories resonate more than large-scale ones, and remember that passion is much more infectious than information. Anything that you prepare for public consumption should more closely resemble a narrative than a report. We’re storytelling creatures, after all, and framing your work in this way makes is more digestible and will make your audience care about it more.

    Stats, graphs and numerical evidence give your story weight. They lend credibility to what you’re saying. They deepen the impact that your story can have on audiences, so you should use them accordingly. Highlight your mission, the needs of your constituents, your successes—then use stats to back that up.

Earned Income Stream Primer

Pictured: an actual stream

    Like many of you, I’ve had sustainability on the mind recently. It’s grant season, but a healthy organization has a mix of income streams including grants, individual giving and earned income streams. Earned income can be a boon to any nonprofit looking for more unrestricted income. Pursuing these streams does come at a cost, both of time and of resources, but depending on the organization it may be worth the investment.

    Usually I like to go in-depth, but this list will be quick and dirty:

1) By-products

        The best way to explain this one is to give an example: Dismas House, an organization here in South Bend that helps former convicts reintroduce themselves to the community, sells the artistic creations that their clients make during art therapy. It happens over the course of their normal program, adds a little income and gives a sense of satisfaction to the arts. If there are products or services that your programs produce over their normal course of business, they may be potential income streams.

2) A monetized version of your program for private use

        If your program provides something that people other than your clients might want, one option for earned income is to offer it as a paid product or service in addition to offering it to your normal clients.

3) Rent out space/equipment

        If you have space or equipment that you own but are not always in use, you may be able to gain some extra income by renting them out when not in use.

4) Fee structures

        This is an option many find unpalatable, and sometimes I do as well, but it is an option. If you have to in order to continue operations or to operate sustainably, consider offering your program services for a sliding scale fee. This is the trickiest option, since every program and every organization will need to use a slightly different pay model in order to best serve its constituents and the needs of the organization.

    There are more, but these are the methods I believe will be of the most use to organizations that are considering new earned income streams. Best of luck!

Cultivating Advocates

    You already know that every penny counts when it comes to nonprofit communications. You have limited time and limited funds to devote to spreading your message, so you almost have an obligation to make use of every possible technique to get the most bandwidth out of the least investment. Fortunately for you, one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal for spreading your message is completely free and involves things that you should be doing anyway. I’m talking about cultivating advocates.

    Advocates are your loudest and most passionate supporters. If you’re lucky enough to have active advocates among your constituents, steward their advocacy as if it is a gift. Because it is. When these people tell their friends about your organization, or share your content to their network, or encourage their co-workers to volunteer for you, they are using their social capital to give you some of the most valuable advertising that there is, and they’re doing it for free.

    You may be thinking: ‘sure, must be nice, but I don’t know anyone like that.’ The formation of advocates is not as immutable as the tides; you have more control over it than you might think. There are several ways to increase your chances of creating advocates. Since you’re reading this, I assume that your mission is important and worthy of support, so I’ll skip that step.

The first thing you can do is to get more people into your ecosystem. Gaining followers, adding facebook likes, telling more people about your organization; these are things you’re likely already doing. Every person who finds out about your organization is a potential advocate. Once someone is in the communication network of your organization, you can encourage advocacy by converting some of your calls to action from requests for funding to requests for shout-outs. This might seem counter-intuitive, but many more people are willing to shout out your organization than are willing to give money. (As an added bonus, someone who passes on information about your organization is more likely to give in the future.)

Once you see advocates in your social network (here I am using the term broadly, offline as well as online), steward their gift of energy and passion. If they use social media, thank them on social media. If you see them in person, make sure they know how much you appreciate them! Much like making friends, cultivating advocates is all about making a connection with someone on a personal level. These small interactions add up to a relationship that is valued by you and valued by your advocate.

To conclude: bring people into your network, incentivize and reward advocacy and practice good stewardships. All skills that you have already that, when applied toward the cultivation of advocates, net your organization benefits that far outweigh the cost of your time investment.

Prepping for Government Grants

    Government grants are intimidating for a reason. They’re complex, specific and, as a rule, are a lot of work. Unlike tax-free income, this is the state or federal government directly giving money out for the completion of a specific project, and they have a vested interest in making sure it goes to the right organization. It often takes some searching to find something on that fits your mission and capabilities, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that you’ve found one already. What should you do to maximize your chances of success?

  1. Start early! As in, as early as possible. This process is going to take time, and more importantly you want to leave yourself some padding in case an item takes longer than you expect.

  2. Make a List. Go through the application and write down every single item that will be required. A lot of the time you’ll be filling out an electronic form that won’t allow you to submit something incomplete, but I still find the checklist to be a useful tool for keeping the project on track.

  3. Write a tight, research-oriented narrative. Be concise and persuasive. Not only are the people reading these going through a lot of proposals, they’re deciding where to send funds out of a large geographic area. I usually advocate having your facts serve your emotional appeal, but in the case of government grants you should have your research front and center.

  4. Have everything ready well ahead of the deadline. I usually shoot for about two weeks before. This extra padding time allows for you to find anything you may have missed and, in some cases, the online application will let you know if anything is missing or incorrect. It’s always better to have the extra time to make sure everything is complete and correct.

Hopefully these guidelines will help you get a foothold in the government grant opportunity you have your eye on. Good hunting!

Emotional Decision Making and the Appeal

Like it or not, as human beings we make most of our decisions emotionally. Sometimes it’s a gut check, sometimes we do something because it just feels right. It happens more often than you realize. More importantly, it happens just as often to the people out there who are making donations and reviewing grant proposals.

When you’re crafting a proposal or an appeal, it’s crucial to keep emotional decision making in mind. You should have facts and convincing arguments to support your case, but honestly that’s the minimum for a successful appeal. If you’re missing a crucial piece of information or you make a mistake, that’ll take you out of the running, but even making sure all your t’s are crossed and your i’s dotted won’t get you all the way there.

You have to change their hearts as well as their minds. What fundamental wrong does your program make right? What feels good about what your organization does? What drew you to make this work your career? Your success with an appeal will ultimately hinge on how well you convey the emotional argument at its heart.


Always Have a Plan

I’m not very good at chess. When I was a kid, I would play against my Dad and I would be flummoxed when he would beat me every time. Eventually I figured it out. While I was trying to go after individual pieces, he had a plan to win the game. Every move he made was part of that plan.It was a useful lesson, and it applies to more than chess.

Most organizations have a master plan written by the board and most likely transcribed in a binder somewhere, although I’d wager that it’s fairly uncommon for you to use it as a reference. When you go about your daily routine, do you view the work you’re doing as part of the plan or as a series of tasks you need to get done? Do you have your sights on the king, or are you chasing a troublesome bishop?

Now, I wouldn’t advocate cracking open the Master Plan and reading from it at every staff meeting (although you certainly could), but I do always recommend making the Master Plan part of your organization’s shared knowledge and I encourage people to think about how the actions they’re taking fit into The Plan.

In the end, whether it’s a giant undertaking like adding a flagship event to your calendar or something as small as posting a picture to your Facebook page, think about why you’re doing it and what part of your plan that action is serving. A small success that serves your plan is going to do more for you than the most ambitious directionless project.

Time and Tools


Your time has value.


This concept is so simple and fundamental that everyone knows it but almost people in our field will routinely forget it. Often, we are under so much pressure to scrimp and save that we’ll spend much more time than necessary on a task that’s outside our wheelhouse in an effort to save a little bit of money. I’m sure you can think of a time when you’ve spent hours banging your head against some task that would have taken a specialist just a few minutes; I know I have.

Your time has value.

When you waste that time on things that are outside of your purview or outside of your skillset, you do a disservice to your mission and yourself. When you reach one of these points when a task calls on you to venture outside your best competency, collaboration, outsourcing and tools are your best friends.

Collaboration should be an easy sell. If you have people in your network who can handle a given task better and faster than you can, why not get them to do it? If you cover each other's weak areas, the whole organization benefits. Outsourcing and tools are harder to pitch, because they cost money.

Here’s the thing, though: if a tool can get a function done in less time than you could doing it without the aid of that tool, and the value of the time you save using the tool meets or exceeds the cost of the tool or service, then it pays for itself. You may even save money.

Do yourself and your mission a favor and consider investing in the tools that will help you do your job.

Your time has value.

Impact over Efficiency

    Yesterday I had the chance to sit down for a beer with a few colleagues, among them Tom Harvey, and we got to talking about something that I think has a lot of bearing to a lot of organizations looking for funding in this giving climate. It’s hard to sell efficiency, it’s easy to sell impact.


    Efficiency as a goal is kind of a trap. There are a lot of pressures out there telling you that you need the best ratio of overhead to program spending that you can manage, and even a few examples of nonprofits that have been brought low by high overheads. The problem is that struggling to keep your belt tight is no guarantee that funding will follow. At best, it’s considered a bare minimum to keep your program running as efficiently as possible. At worst, you hamstring yourself by overstraining a small staff.

    Now, I am by no means anti-efficiency. We are all stewards of public funds and we have a responsibility and an opportunity to use that position to accomplish the most good. What I would advocate against is holding up efficiency as one of the primary draws of your program. Funders are right to want to give their money to a well-run program, but you won’t get people knocking down your door just by saying your program is well-run. What you need is measurable impact.

    Wherever you can, I advocate measuring the impact-the good that your program has accomplished in the community. It’s impact that will allow funders to form a connection to your work and want to support it. Nothing puts you in a better position to secure support than being able to prove that you’re making a difference.

Your First Grant Proposal

It’s time. You’ve done your research, you’ve found a funder that lines up perfectly with your program; it’s time to write your first grant proposal. Here are some things to keep in mind:



Make sure all your documents are in order

Pretty much every grantmaking foundation and government agency is going to want copies of your organization budget, your program budget, your board list and your last financial audit, and many will want more documents than that. Do your future self a favor and get everything assembled as close to the beginning of the process as possible. You don’t want to be scrambling for the last piece you need on deadline day.


Triple check your proposal to make sure you fully address all the questions

You’re going to end up putting a lot of work into this, and you don’t want to accidentally disqualify yourself by neglecting part of one of the questions. Some of these applications are quite long, and it literally pays to be thorough.


In the body of the proposal, use subtle language mirroring

Most applications will have a section for you to describe your program in detail and explain how it aligns with the grantmaker's goals. This section is sometimes called the body of the proposal, and it’s a good opportunity to use some of the same language that your grantmaker used in their mission or interest areas. I wouldn’t recommend copying it word for word; a little bit goes a long way. Just describe your program in a way that incorporates language that you know they’re looking for.



Don’t be afraid to open a line of communication with the foundation’s program officer if you have questions. That’s part of why they’re there and they can also be a very valuable source of feedback. Plus, building a relationship with someone inside the foundation can be invaluable down the road.

I hope these tips help, and good hunting!