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Millennials and Philanthropy: Musings from the Field

Two weeks ago, I abandoned my Metro card, business casual attire, and commuter shoes for a brief foray into an alternate universe filled with camping, live music, port-a-potties, and crowds of millennials known as Firefly Music Festival 2014 in Dover, Delaware. Naturally, one would think that this festival is great opportunity for charities to engage with millennials and enlist new donors and volunteers, and why wouldn’t it be? With 80,000 people in attendance and performances by artists such as Jack Johnson, Ziggy Marley, and OutKast, concertgoers were relaxed, friendly, and listening to the type of music that makes one feel as if they are on the verge of a social revolution or spiritual breakthrough—otherwise known as the perfect captive audience.

Firefly 2014

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was the official charity of Firefly Music Festival, and their tent was stocked with pamphlets and friendly volunteer staff ready to educate the public and fundraise for their cause. While the exact numbers of funds raised from Firefly are unavailable, I witnessed the lack of general interest and the low level of engagement in those tents which was not what I expected for an event of this size. Concertgoers seemed to be too “checked out” from the outside world to visit a nonprofit’s tent, and on a certain level, I understand why. No one wants to be “bothered” into educating themselves on the financial burdens that childhood cancer imposes to underprivileged families when they intended to spend their festival as a vacation focused on drinking, relaxing, and listening to music.

However, I couldn’t help but think: there has to be a better way for nonprofits to adjust to the seemingly self-centered culture of the millennial generation while still increasing donor engagement, fundraising efforts, and most importantly, spreading cause awareness!

As a millennial myself – and a millennial who works at a nonprofit, to boot – I have seen both good and bad engagement efforts. So, just in time for the outdoor festivities that always accompany any good summer, here are three suggestions for how charities can better engage with this seemingly blasé millennial generation when partnering and/or boothing at a large, public event:

1) Choose your event wisely: While St. Jude is a great nonprofit, most concertgoers were white, middle-class, childless millennials that may not be able to “relate” to a cause such as childhood cancer. Better charities to highlight during this concert could have been ones whose cause concertgoers could more easily relate to on a personal level, since audiences at recreational events such as these are already in the “me, me, me” mindset. To Write Love on Her Arms partnering with Vans Warped Tour is a great example of a nonprofit that leverages its audience’s demographic to increase its impact. TWLOHA’s mission is to help people struggling with depression, addiction, and self injury, and by boothing at Van’s Warped Tour, they are providing a valuable resource to their ideal demographic of teenagers.

How this looks: Before committing to boothing at an event, honestly consider if the event’s audience will have a natural affinity towards your nonprofit’s cause, and if this booth will be the best way to allot your resources and volunteer’s time. Alternately, focus your resources on actively looking for events that you can partner with that more specifically relate to your cause.

2) Match your cause to their gaze: Throughout the festival, people’s gaze was centered on five things: Food, water, music, friends, and phones. The rest—whether it be dusty air, littered ground, or philanthropic tents next to the ever-important food and drink stations, are automatically tuned out by people due to the sensory overload. Therefore, meet the donor where you already know they’re guaranteed to look!

How this looks: Think creatively—ideas don’t have to be grandiose, and impact is impact, no matter now small or large scale your event may be. Is your nonprofit dedicated to helping those without clean access to water? Put “donate” jars next to free water filling stations—donated money can go straight to the cause, and donations are likely to increase when donors recently first-hand experienced thirst themselves! Does the event your nonprofit is attending have its own app? See how your nonprofit can integrate itself or an advertisement into the app! Is there a hashtag for the event being used on the large monitors? Have your nonprofit participate in the hashtag and incentivize freebies to the first few donors!

3) Stay true to your image: Portraying the perfect image for your nonprofit is an art form, not a science. When marketing to and engaging with millennials, it’s important to not “try too hard.” As technologically advanced as they may be, millennials are in person, a suspicious bunch, wary of any organization trying to “ruin their fun” by reeling them in and selling them something, especially if the organization looks like a high school parent trying to be the “cool mom.” No one wants to engage with a nonprofit whose image isn’t true—donors, especially millennial donors, will see right through the disguise. Your mission doesn’t have to be sexy, as long as it’s clear and easy for the donor to understand!

How this looks: Instead of trying to sell your nonprofit or what you do—focus on what cause the nonprofit is serving, and how the millennial can help serve this cause with your nonprofit as the go-between. Time with a potential donor is precious, so make it count—focus on how the donor can act now, rather than trying to impress the donor with an inauthentic “young and fun” image.

Does your nonprofit often booth at events? What tips and tricks do you have that help attract millennials to your nonprofit’s cause?

Courtney Cherico me

Courtney Cherico is the communications coordinator at GuideStar. She manages their many social media channels, including this blog. Courtney is a graduate from the University of Mary Washington, where she majored in English with a creative writing concentration. You can reach Courtney at Follow her on Twitter @courtneycherico.



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