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Embracing next gen ideals: Nonprofits, foundations change tactics to tap into younger donors, volunteers

BY Sunday, January 21, 2018 12:45pm

Despite their strong ties to smartphones and virtual communication, Gen Xers and Millennials still crave face-to-face interaction, and the philanthropic sector is taking note.

Keith Hopkins, the owner of Ada-based Hopkins Fundraising Consulting LLC, said the fundamentals of nonprofit fundraising haven’t changed in the last 50 or 60 years. Even with the increasing use of technology to solicit donations and communicate with donors, online giving represents only 4 percent of total giving, he said.

“Fundraising is resistant to some of the technological change over the years,” Hopkins said. “The way that you engage donors hasn’t changed at all. You’re still working on a person-to-person way, especially for those who make big gifts. At the end of the day, if someone is going to write a check for $10,000, they want that personal attention.”

This is particularly true when describing next-generation donors, including people born between 1961 and 1998, according to Michael Moody, Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University and the co-author of a book titled “Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving.”

Moody’s research found that as “next gen” donors step into their philanthropic roles, they not only have unprecedented resources, but also big ideas for how to wield their financial power.

“They want to disrupt the traditional world of charitable giving, and they want to do so now, not after they retire to a life of philanthropic leisure,” according to promotional materials for the book.

Leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors are seeing this manifest itself in the more hands-on approach next-generation donors take with their involvement in their organizations. In addition to giving their money, they seek out volunteer opportunities within an organization that will expose them to the constituent base it serves and ask for detailed information about the impact of their work on that organization.

Unlike with previous generations of donors, they grew up having more open conversations at home with their families and have no qualms about questioning everything, said Vivian TerMaat, chief advancement officer with Wedgwood Christian Services in Grand Rapids.

“We have some donors and board members who are part of a silent generation who do things based on honor and duty. They weren’t raised with that level of candor,” TerMaat said. “Next gen donors want more of a personal connection. They are more sociable, too, and they want to get together socially and want to get to know who they are serving with.”

Hopkins said this has encouraged many foundations and nonprofits to retool the way they recruit board members while also providing the social interaction opportunities next-generation donors want.

“When I’m working on a major campaign and we’re looking to raise millions of dollars, whether it be the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission or an animal shelter, I sit down with the organization and we start to build a leadership team,” Hopkins said. “I encourage them to look for age diversity and take younger people and pair them up with more seasoned folks and try to get young people into a position where they can learn from those with more experience.”


Wedgwood and D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s are among numerous nonprofits that have developed successful methods to attract and retain next-generation donors and volunteers.

In 2012, Wedgwood launched its Next Gen Board, which asks for a three-year term commitment from younger donors. In addition to meeting with one another, members of the board also sit in on meetings with the organization’s board of directors to get a different perspective on the work. TerMaat said this gives Wedgwood’s leadership the opportunity to see who’s committed and interested.

“So, we’re grooming people to serve down the road on our board of directors,” she said, adding that coming from a prominent family or having a lot of money is not among the criteria for serving on the Next Gen Board. “Their primary role is to serve as ambassadors for our organization.”

The key difference between members of the Next Gen Board and previous generations of board members is the high level of involvement with the organization that they seek out. TerMaat said next-generation donors want to see the facility and spend time with the children at Wedgwood and learn their stories, in addition to getting to know their fellow board members.

“Our next gen group has really become engaged,” she said. “They come here for meetings and events and they also get their spouses quite involved. It’s not just a professional relationship. There’s far more blurring of the personal and professional. They want that engagement and they’re very socially conscious in our community.”

Members of D.A. Blodgett’s Emerging Leaders Council validate the increasing cross-pollination between the personal and professional lives of its members. Between quarterly meetings for these next-generation donors, they will get together for a happy hour to network and socialize, said Jim Visser, D.A. Blodgett’s chief advancement officer.

The 12-member council is charged with fundraising to lay support for the organization and build up the network of younger donors, Visser said. They have done this through their creation and support of an annual Derby Day Euchre Tournament, which last year raised $20,000, a $7,000-increase from the previous year.

“Three to four years ago, we started to look at who was going to our events and we saw that everyone was middle-aged or older,” Visser said. “We knew that some events like dinner … or the golf outing weren’t really designed for younger people.”

At the end of the council’s first year in operation, Visser said he asked for input.

“They said, ‘We love the mission, but what’s going to keep me really involved is our relationships with each other. We want to show up to meetings and feel connected,’” he said.

Members are asked to serve two two-year terms and have the option of moving up to emeritus status after that.

“Once they’re in, we want to make sure we’re not wasting their time and that they get to shape the agenda,” Visser said. “We give them something meaningful to do so they’re not feeling like we’re wasting their time. One of the expectations is that they all give, hear about outcomes and get other communications from us as well.”


Community foundations in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo also are creating events and initiatives focused on meeting the philanthropic needs of next-generation donors.

In conjunction with Giving Tuesday, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation hosts an event at Bell’s Brewery in downtown Kalamazoo with food, music and the opportunity to network. The foundation also partners with Volunteer Kalamazoo on an open house with agencies looking for volunteers and young people looking for those opportunities.

Underlying these events is a message to younger donors that they can be philanthropists regardless of their financial means, said Raven Britt, a development officer with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

“A lot of our donors outside of this audience are able to contribute large amounts, but we want to let this new audience know that any amount is a wonderful amount,” Britt said. “We’re very conscious of the need to change this narrative.”

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation introduced an initiative in 2012 called “100 New Philanthropists” in honor of its centennial in 2022. Those interested in participating must have some type of volunteer engagement in the community and be willing to contribute $500 a year for five years to the foundation. They also must be willing to share their stories in various GRCF publications.

GRCF President Diana Sieger said 71 new families and couples have already signed on to be among her organization’s newest philanthropists. She is confident that the foundation will go over its goal.

“We thought it would be great if we could introduce the foundation to more young people during our centennial,” Sieger said. “This will give us the ability to reach out to younger donors, but also establish trust with all types of donors when they see that others have been so willing to be a part of this.”

The reality is that most if not all organizations are very aware that they need to reach out to younger donors, but some organizations are still confused about how to accomplish that, Sieger said.

Hopkins said the organizations he works with have recognized the need to court that next generation of donors.

“The Kalamazoo Gospel Mission is in the early stages of a campaign and they’ve tried to find leaders in their early 30s,” Hopkins said. “The Gospel Mission leadership and donor base is older. They understand that people are going to pass away and there’s got to be that next generation to step in to help.” 

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