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The up-and-coming generation of changemakers is challenging the very way we think about philanthropy and incorporate giving into our lives. The dominant attitudes that donors bring to philanthropy—their motivations, priorities and views—are quickly changing as Millennials bring their unique experiences and behaviors to the table. And the tide will continue to shift as Millennials take up a more significant role in philanthropy.
1. The idea of who can be a philanthropist is undergoing a transformation.
Although the term philanthropy comes from the Greek phrase “love of humanity,” it has long had associations with wealth and privilege—but younger donors show a marked shift in their idea of what philanthropy means. Nearly three-quarters of Millennials would call themselves philanthropists—compared to only 35 percent of Baby Boomers—illustrating the younger generation’s more inclusive definition of philanthropy. Millennials’ broad self-identification with the term indicates that they are rejecting those traditional associations and understand the term to apply broadly to anyone giving time, talent or treasure to make the world a better place.
"I consider myself a philanthropist."
2. Donors’ reasons for giving are shifting from external motivations to internal motivations.
Baby Boomers’ philanthropy is more likely to be motivated by the nonprofits they support and how the cause resonates with them, but Millennials’ motivations are tied back to their strong social conscious and how they see themselves as philanthropists. Both generations believe they have a responsibility to give back—but Millennial donors are also fueled by their belief in their own ability to be a force for good and their desire to make social change core to how they live their lives.
Top three reasons Millennials give to charity
"I can make a difference with my donations."
“I have a responsibility to give.”
“It helps me live a life that reflects my values.”
Top three reasons Baby Boomers give to charity
“The nonprofits I give to are trying to solve important problems.”
“I have a responsibility to give.”
“I am personally connected to the cause or I know people personally impacted by the cause.”
3. Donors are increasingly focused on how their donations influence specific outcomes.
Younger donors have great expectations of themselves to do good, but they also have high expectations of the organizations they support. Not content to contribute money and sit on the sidelines, younger donors view a donation as an investment in a solution to a problem they see—and therefore have an increased focus on the demonstrated effectiveness of the charities they fund. Millennials also place value on authenticity and transparency when choosing the brands and organizations they support, and they are likely to shift their dollars elsewhere if they don’t see real impact.
"I track results for most or all nonprofits I support."
Read letters and reports from the organization
Pay attention to news about issues related to charities
Talk to friends or advisors about the organization
Frequently visit their website/social media channels
Read the organization's annual reports
"When you have less money to give, you think about where each of those dollars goes and want to make sure your impact is really high. [Millennials] want to see where their money is going, which can be very painful to nonprofits—especially small ones—who don’t necessarily have the resources to give that constant feedback."
-Rachel Klausner, Founder and CEO, social impact platform Millie
4. Younger donors pay close attention to their peers, and they become ambassadors for their favorite causes.
Millennials understand that making a financial donation is just one way to support a cause. Sharing and advocating for causes can be just as valuable—whether it’s through a Facebook birthday fundraiser or the #IceBucketChallenge. They may not be able to afford large donations, but Millennials have embraced the power of their voices; every post and interaction is an opportunity to plug in to something bigger and make more of a difference. And this peer-to-peer sharing has a strong influence on how they make their own financial donations. Younger donors are much more likely to learn about and respond to causes via social media.
Peer influence in giving
Encouraged family/friends to donate to the same cause
Told friends or family about an organization/cause you donated to
Made your donation after learning about a cause/organization on social media
Donated through social media, showing support for someone you DO know
Donated through social media, showing support for someone you do NOT know
"If you see a lot of your friends giving to a cause, that will highly impact your decision to get involved in a cause as well. To create a culture of change and cooperation, we need social reinforcements of those norms. If you see it, you can believe it. And if you believe it, you’re going to do it."
- Steven Olikara, Founder, Millennial Action Project
Donor loyalty to large, established nonprofits could become a thing of the past.
Millennials are more attached to their values than they are to specific institutions. With donors increasingly paying close attention to a nonprofit’s results, organizations could lose donor support if they are unable to show specifically how their contributions are making a real change. Donors can simply redirect their funds to one of the multitude of organizations working in the same cause area. At the extreme, nonprofits face the risk of getting “canceled” if they are seen as doing anything donors don’t agree with—from mishandling funds to failing to be sufficiently equitable and inclusive.
Peer-to-peer influences could broaden donors’ giving behavior—and create additional social pressure to participate in philanthropy.
As social media amplifies a user’s every activity, their friends and followers are influenced to follow suit when they donate to charity. But as the endless stream of new posts inspires donations from Millennials, their giving could be less focused and more fragmented across a wide variety of issues.