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.