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Philanthropy’s next generation

Millennials are ready to give, but on their own terms

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer

They have been dubbed Generation Y, Generation Net, Generation Next and the Echo Boomers, the last a reference to the fact that a good number are the offspring of baby boomers.

Others call them the Millennials, or, less kindly, shorten that moniker to the ME Generation, a reference to their alleged sense of entitlement. But by whatever name they are known, these young adults, ages about 18 to 35, are the future of philanthropy.

The numbers are compelling for those who would seek their support. The Pew Research Center says Millennials are 75 million strong, trailing only the boomers in their percentage of the U.S. population, and then, only slightly, at 23 percent versus 26 percent. They are highly educated, politically liberal, and ethically and religiously diverse.

They also are, by all accounts, impressively self-assured, and, despite encountering a daunting job market that has kept some of them underemployed, they are disposed to be generous. In a 2011 donor survey of nearly 3,000 Millennials cited by Stanford University’s Social Innovation Review, 93 percent reported making donations to nonprofits.

Many organizations in Virginia now are trying to focus and cultivate these tendencies.

At the University of Mary Washington, for example, Millennials are getting a crash course in philanthropy. Since 2005, Robert Rycroft, chair of Mary Washington’s economics department, has been teaching the Economics of Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector, a consistently popular offering. “I exceed my limit [on enrollment] every year,” he says.

A hallmark of Generation Y members is that they do not like to defer decision-making to their elders. One reason Rycroft’s class is always full may be that it allows students to call the shots. The students decide what charitable needs they want to target in the Fredericksburg area. They then write a mission statement, publicize the fund and gather and vet applications. At semester’s end, they pick the recipients for $10,000 in grant money supplied by Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation. (The Fredericksburg philanthropist, recently named Virginian of the Year by the Virginia Press Association, is the sister of billionaire Warren Buffett.)
Not surprisingly for anyone who has had to compete with a smart phone for a Millennial’s attention, Rycroft’s students pursue their assignment largely online, by using email, building a blog and maintaining a presence on Facebook. Although they do site visits to potential grantees, this is a generation that prefers — some even say demands — to conduct many of their social and professional interactions on the Internet. (See related story on PlanG.)

A 2007 survey of 7,705 American college students found that 97 percent owned a computer, 94 percent owned a cell phone and 76 percent used instant messaging. Five years is an eternity in online time, so these numbers undoubtedly have grown since that report, especially as “tweeting” has gained traction as a communication option. In fact, the 2011 donor survey found that although 59 percent of Millennials said they had made donations in response to a “personal ask,” 58 percent said they would have preferred to have been contacted via the Internet.

Katherine “Kate” Gibson, 21, a historic preservation major from Pittsburgh who is minoring in economics, took Rycroft’s class last fall. As part of her course load, she helped create a website for the project, reviewed online applications and wrote news releases. Her class ended up dividing its grant money three ways, giving to programs for preschoolers and the homeless and to a diabetes screening service. That is consistent with survey findings that Millennials prefer to give in the areas of education and human services.

Gibson’s charitable work wasn’t limited to for-credit hours, though. As a member of a campus volunteer organization called COAR (Community Outreach and Resources), she also visited nursing homes and worked with local Girl Scout troops.

Such volunteerism is embedded in the DNA of Millennials, many of whom attended secondary schools in which public service was part of the curriculum or even required for high school graduation. Eighty percent of the Millennials responding to that 2011 survey said that they had volunteered in the past year, and 90 percent of those had done so more than once. The Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent agency for AmeriCorps, says that in 2010 Millennials gave 1.2 billion hours of their time to communities nationwide.

Gibson says that students at Mary Washington are simply service oriented. “It is rewarding hard work,” she says of her donated hours.

Nonprofits, obviously, want to nurture this spirit of generosity, but they are learning that Millennials want to be approached on their own terms. About a year ago, for example, The Community Foundation for Northern Virginia created the Future Fund, a giving circle specifically for young professionals. “They want to be in the company of people their age,” says Sara Jaffe, vice president of the foundation.

The fund operates in much the same way as Rycroft’s economics class, in that its members pick an area of interest, form a grant committee to review proposals and choose the recipients of funding by vote. In this case, however, they are giving away their own money.

In its first year, the fund, which has 115 members, raised $54,000 and awarded two $25,000 grants, one to The House Inc., a center for student leadership in Woodbridge, and the other to Liberty’s Promise, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that supports young immigrants.

Jaffe says that the Future Fund represents a tiny percentage of the charitable giving that funnels through her organization. Its members need a lot “more handholding” than other donors, but, she adds, “I have been pleasantly surprised by how engaged they are. They are taking ‘me’ and turning it into ‘us.’ ”

Jaffe also mentions another prominent characteristic of the Millennials: They are avid networkers, and, unlike many of their elders, they turn out in strength for the foundation’s social activities.

Accordingly, in April, the Future Fund held its first awards gala. “Come in your brightest, most colorful cocktail party attire for dancing, games, festive cocktails and a menu of goodies that will take you back to your youth,” read the online notice. More than 300 were in attendance.

Businesses, as well as charities, are recognizing that they have a vested interest in appealing to Millennials’ philanthropic preferences.

“Research shows that new graduates are looking for opportunities to work with companies that emphasize volunteerism,” says Charlie Agee, director of corporate contributions and community involvement for Richmond-based Altria Group, owner of Philip Morris USA. Agee says that his company makes it a point to offer philanthropic opportunities even to its interns, and it provides multiple outlets for giving, including a matching gifts program that allows employees to support whatever cause is important to them.

Among Millennials, Agee says, the leading recipients of matching donations are once again educational institutions, followed by health and human services programs.

Altria further supports a volunteer program in which employees can use their professional skills, such as their IT smarts, to help nonprofits directly. Millennials “like the hands-on aspect and getting their hands dirty, literally and figuratively,” Agee says. “They like to see the difference they are making.”

Thirteen years ago, Altria started its employee-run Community Fund in response to demand. “The more we offer, the more they ask, wanting to help out,” says Agee.  “We heard that they [employees] wanted to have a decision-making role in giving.”  In 2011, the fund, with its many Millennial members, awarded $2.3 million to 90 Virginia organizations.

If Kevin Cao is any indicator, Generation Y’s style of philanthropy will be carried on by the next crop of adults to come of age, the under-18-year-olds who already are being tagged Generation Z.

Cao is a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria. The 16-year-old also is president and co-founder of GIVE (Growth and Inspiration through Volunteering and Education), a nonprofit tutoring organization that he started in 2009 and that now reaches about 400 elementary school students in three Northern Virginia locations. GIVE has a website and a Facebook page, and it does most of its recruitment online. Its latest project is to publish a children’s book about religious, ethnic and cultural tolerance. Cao says the Fairfax schools are creating a video campaign to publicize the book.

Although GIVE demands a yearlong commitment from its teenage tutors, it has had no problem finding willing volunteers.  “They appreciate the opportunities they have and want to be part of the cycle of giving,” Cao says of his tutors.

That’s good news for nonprofits. If they can only adjust their approach to appeal to that mindset, they can expect to profit for generations to come. 


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