The generational difference in donors

Chris Esh


There is a huge difference in how generations think about donations to nonprofits.

Older generations tend to be more institutionally aligned. This means they would repeatedly donate to a particular organization, church, political party, etc.

In the younger generations, like millennials and Gen-Zers, donors tend to make donations based on what emotionally resonates with them at the current moment, with fairly little importance given to institutions. So it might be environmental causes one month, the next month anti-racism, the next month an election, and the next month some other hot button issue that catches their attention.

A new playbook is needed

Whether you think this trend is good or bad, it’s an important shift that you need to understand if your organization is going to survive for the next ten years.

Many strong organizations have been able to ignore this reality for a while, thanks to consistent support from long-time donors. But as millennials age and represent a more significant share of money-making professionals, they’d do well to respond to this shift.

How should nonprofits adjust to this reality? By fundamentally shifting how they talk about donations and their impact. Instead of taking for granted that doing good work automatically leads to committed donors, they need to invest time and energy into telling that story again and again with timely, relevant content. Focus on what you’re doing this week or next month, not just resting on your decades of past successes or lofty mission statement.

Make donors feel like they are investing in something important, and that their individual donation actually matters in real-time.

Why people donate

All donors are paying money to feel a certain way. Nonprofits need to spend serious time reflecting on this. This isn’t just a trend in narcissistic millennials—boomers do it, too. They just might be more inclined to build a positive self-image based on associating themselves with well-run institutions, whereas millennials want to feel emotionally connected with what feels important at this moment.

Annual reports might appeal to traditional donors, but younger audiences are more motivated by real-time impact reporting via social media: video, images, and text (in that order).

And no, you don’t need a professional videographer with $10k worth of gear. You need an intern with an iPhone. While there’s a place for well-polished professional media, there’s a reason why TiKTok and IG Stories do so well. Their imperfection is what makes them authentic and compelling.

Authenticity matters

The best way to stand out from the noise is to be real. Be passionate, show emotion, and let some personality show through your marketing. Let the real humans that make up your organization (staff, volunteers, constituents, etc.) take center stage in your marketing, rather than stock photos or impersonal social media posts.

Being overly professional and stuffy is a good way to get ignored.

Seize the opportunity

I think a lot of old-school nonprofits are going to have a tough time making this shift. Those that banked on their size and reputation might struggle to make a compelling emotional case that individually resonates.

But if you’re an agile nonprofit that’s open to trying something new, this could be a significant opportunity. If you can move quickly, respond to needs in real-time, and tell your stories using platforms where your audience will hear them, you might be able to succeed where the big players in the nonprofit space fail.


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