Several years ago, I was sitting in a fundraising meeting agonizing about our year-end mailer. The direct mail piece targeted our older, wealthy donors – and if we didn’t hit the lofty goal we’d set, we wouldn’t have enough time to recover.

Needless to say, the pressure was intense, and I was really feeling it. While we talked through our plan one last time, a team member mentioned an article about how Millennials are using technology and social media to change the way nonprofits do fundraising. I thought to myself, “My three kids are Millennials, and I’m constantly having to give them money. Maybe this will be relevant in 20 years, but I need strategies that will help me reach my fundraising goals right now.”

The nonprofit sector’s fascination with Millennials

It’s fair to wonder why everyone is so enamored with Millennials – individuals born between 1980 and 2000. Sure, they’re digitally connected, creative, solution-centered, self-organized, open and transparent (as noted in my colleague Derrick Feldmann’s book, Cause for Change: The Why and How of Millennial Engagement, written with Kari Dunn Saratovsky) but, as fundraisers, why should we care?

Consider this story, told by novelist David Foster Wallace:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Wallace explains, “[T]he most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

 Millennials may not be aware of how extraordinary of a time this is – it’s the only world they’ve ever known. But those of us with a different generational mindset can learn about our new environment by researching what comes naturally to them. Through their values, commitments and interaction with their peers, they’re showing us how the water is.

 The Millennial mindset

Societal currents don’t impact just Millennials; they shape all of us, and they’re picking up speed. Using digital fundraising tools and social media to advance your cause is not only the preferred method for engaging Millennials, it’s rapidly becoming the preferred method for everyone. This phenomenon is referred to as the Millennial mindset and it’s spreading. Recently, former President Clinton teased George W. Bush about not having a Twitter account. Bush responded by calling him out via Instagram.

Many nonprofit leaders have been reluctant to allocate resources for Millennial engagement because they are so focused on maintaining their current donors. But that decision may end up being a costly one, as their existing donors become less responsive to the strategies of the past.

I didn’t see this when I sat agonizing over our mailer, but I needed to start integrating digital tools, email and social media into all of our events and campaigns – not just to reach Millennials, but to expand and deepen the level of engagement with all of our donors.

How to adopt a Millennial mindset

At Achieve, I work with nonprofits of all sizes to help them adopt a Millennial Mindset in their fundraising strategies and execution. Adopting the Millennial mindset means asking some tough questions:

  • Are you giving potential supporters opportunities to engage with your mission beyond just asking for a donation?
  • Are you using technology to mobilize the peer networks of your donors in a way that taps into their energy and passion for change?
  • Are you creating space for people to connect emotionally with your cause outside of traditional newsletters and year-end mailings?

You may want to use these questions as a discussion tool with your board development committee and staff. But most importantly, invite Millennials to become part of the strategic conversation. Give them a seat at the table and leverage their cultural expertise.

Millennial purchasing power is estimated at $300 billion annually, and growing. Include money they receive from their Baby Boomer and Gen X parents and that number rises to over $500 billion. Marketers from the private sector are clamoring to establish relationships with this powerful consumer force. The Millennial generation is also giving us the best look at the most important technological advances in human history.

For those of us interested in making the world a better place, they’re showing the way forward. A wise older fish, who understands that times can and will change, would do well to observe the direction the young ones are swimming in.

They might be leading the way.