This blog first appeared on AdLibbing

When we started the Millennial Impact Project in 2009 to understand how and why millennials do what they do with causes, there was one question advisors, practitioners and it seemed like everyone wanted to know – what issues do millennials care about?

This question comes up every year. Last year I spoke at more than 75 events and I can always guarantee at least one of the questions will be:

“Please tell me what issues the 80 million people in the United States who represent some of the largest and most diverse opinions and demographics want to spend their time, activism, and dollars with.”

However, answering this question is always tricky as survey data is inconsistent. One study finds millennials care about environment, education and health. Another finds economic, gender issues or wage as their most important issues. Given this, it’s not surprising that every cause marketer or corporate social responsibility professional is scratching their head as they try to reach this important group.

Based on this inconsistency, I think the original question is wrongly stated and the interest of marketers and advertisers should be redefined. Instead of asking what millennials care about, the question should be framed as: how and why do millennials participate in social issues, and consequently, why do certain movements garner more attention than others?

In our work we learned that social issues are tied to the intersection of community, family, friends and where people live, work, and play. Social issue interests change. Therefore, brands should not focus on the changing interests; rather, focus on helping the public participate in a movement.

So what have we found?

  1. In all of our studies, we see millennials participate in activism and give donations to an average of 3-5 organizations representing diverse issues each year. This means that the concept of becoming a social issue or singular charity of choice is unlikely. This is especially the case when individuals are going through several lifecycle changes and have yet to filter their cause involvement internally and more methodically.
  2. People are more likely to relate to a social issue when humans are at the core of the story. Inspire others to invoke the human characteristic of empathy for another. No matter what the issue is, if people can see themselves, their families or their neighbors reflected, they are more likely to act for good. This is what generates the awareness of the social issue and elevates its importance in that moment above so many other causes.
  3. Initially, we act in small ways to satisfy the brain’s desire to take the path of least resistance. The brain is an economic model that is always trying to gain the largest return on investment. For instance, I want to lose weight, but can I figure out a way to do it without eating right or exercising? When the individual is made aware of the social issue for the first time in an impulsive environment, it cues us to do something, but not necessarily do too much – yet. This initial engagement is what generates the likes, shares and petition signing for the cause.
  4. The individual needs to act and act again. Once an individual has expressed interest in your social cause through a small act of participation, prompt them to engage further through another action right away. This is important for long term social issue adoption and for the individual to do more than just act impulsively. This action generates more discussion on the social issue and can lead to deeper actions such as peer fundraising or participatory behavior in events. Rather than acting impulsively to support your cause, they will be acting with purpose.
  5. The individual needs others in their network to care about the issue too. Acknowledgement, peer recognition and the joy of joining with others strengthen their belief in the issue. This tells the brain that others believe like you do. And therefore, because you and others around you believe in it, this issue is important. This is what generates individuals to self-organize around the issue and become owners of the movement. Once an individual owns a movement, they will begin spreading deeper messages and organizing their own events and programs for the cause.

Let’s get back to the central question – what does the public or millennials for that matter care about in terms of social issues? The answer is that they care about issues that bring people from empathy to ownership, issues that transform public discourse into a narrative in which people can picture themselves and those closest to them making a difference for something greater than themselves. When that narrative occurs, the public will be more likely to own your cause because they believe in your ability to affect change and their genuine ability to help.