Exploring the Motivations and Concerns of Younger Donors

Most discussions of younger donors tend to focus on how we give—our impact focus, our desire to be involved with the organizations we fund, and our interest in making a difference through social enterprise and newer forms of philanthropy.

These trends are important to my family’s giving and I see them frequently working with younger donors in my capacity as philanthropic advisor at Arnerich Massena. This focus on how younger donors give is important. To truly explore Millennials’ engagement with philanthropy, however, we need to first examine the underlying needs and concerns that inform why younger donors choose these approaches to giving.

Conversations with younger donors reveal key factors informing our engagement:

We are anxious about our future and the timeline for solutions.

Younger donors confront a frenzied media landscape and an overwhelming numbers of causes to address and opportunities to engage. Problems and tragedies across the world are closer than ever, with minute-by-minute replays available 24/7 on television and digital media. This information overload creates a sense of obligation and duty to improve our world while also leading to paralysis: how do you take a small step toward progress when burdened by a world’s worth of issues?

The tension between obligation and paralysis creates anxiety in younger generations and contributes to the pervasive sense that we need to find impact-focused solutions now, before these problems become even more entrenched. It also means that younger generations are tying philanthropic strategies to specific causes and looking for multiple angles to make an impact, rather than focusing on a deep connection to a single organization.

We feel pressure to create an individual philanthropic identity outside of family wealth.

It’s difficult to avoid headlines lamenting the decline of the Millennial Generation, especially our entitlement and lack of work ethic. Growing up in this media landscape, younger donors feel pressure to buck these stereotypes by proving our dedication and ability. This means differentiating individual worth from family wealth by forging a unique identity and finding success on our own merits.

Family wealth and the family name may be a reality of younger generation’s privilege, but many individuals in this position feel a keen sense of anxiety to avoid being seen as riding on previous generations’ coattails. This results in the need to establish an individual identity by seeking out new and exciting projects within the realm of philanthropy and social enterprise—and being willing to take big risks on innovative ideas.

We are figuring out how to create new value systems that incorporate family traditions and personal preferences.

Millennials are anxious to stand on their own success, but are no different than previous generations in appreciating the values that shape our families. We are, however, a generation conditioned to be “woke,” to criticize injustices, and to try and recognize and criticize our own privilege. Deciding how to uphold family stories, values, and traditions, while integrating the social norms of the 21st century is not an easy task. These considerations are key to our philanthropy, both in deciding what causes to support and what form support will take. Making these decisions is a slow and challenging process, requiring trial and error as we learn, grow, and begin to forge our own identities.

We need guidance and examples to help us figure out our own philanthropic identity and determine what form our giving will assume.

Younger donors may need guidance to feel secure in their wealth and to start building philanthropy into their life in a meaningful way. Millennials are in the midst of settling down, buying homes, starting and raising families, and building careers, and may not feel that they have enough time, money, or knowledge to begin making a difference through philanthropy.

Family members and advisors can encourage engagement with philanthropy by advocating for starting small, by being aware of the factors informing younger generations’ philanthropy, and by keeping perspective on the decades it takes to become a truly engaged and effective donor.  I advise families to consider the following when working to engage younger generations in philanthropy:

  • Share stories of values you learned from your parents, and how those values translated into your own philanthropy.
  • Share stories of your entry into philanthropy, noting early successes and also—maybe especially—failures.
  • Support younger family members’ engagement in non-traditional philanthropy, and look for ways to bring non-traditional elements into current family giving.
  • Communicate that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and encourage younger donors to focus on one or two areas at a time, rather than trying to explore many interests concurrently.

Understanding the factors driving younger donors towards impact-focused philanthropy and opportunities in the broader social enterprise sector is an important first step in supporting the Millennial Generation’s philanthropic giving. Your patience and guidance as the next generation finds our philanthropic identity will allow multi-generational families to successfully work together to move the needle on the causes about which we all care deeply.