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Supporter Shift: Engaging Tomorrow's Donor (Part I)

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Regardless of how you're connected to a nonprofit (whether you work for, volunteer with or financially support one), the shifting demographics and mentalities of today's donors will affect the organization's future.

What's the average age of "your" nonprofit's donor pool? How many of the donors are over the age of 65, 70, 85? Do you know? (And -- you're probably asking yourself -- should you care?) The simple answer is, yes, you really should care. But we'll get back to that in a second.

First, why do we care? Well, if you've been read our first blog series, "The Imperfect Storm," you already know that the two of us are passionate about nonprofit success. In "The Imperfect Storm," we started a discussion focused on five shifts that, combined with what's been a challenging economy, are making things tough for nonprofits. In the "Support Shift" series, we will continue the discussion, focused on how nonprofits can better serve their changing supporter bases.

The first shift we'll explore is all about donors -- how they are changing in what they seek through philanthropy. In short, what worked with them yesterday just doesn't work today. So -- back to that question about average age of your donor pool. Guess what? If you don't know the answer to this opening question, you might want to figure it out.

Here's why: For many nonprofits, the answer can be downright scary... a warning sign of a problem that's getting more urgent every day. The question, for today's nonprofit leader, is this: If a large percentage of our donations are coming from generations that are getting smaller, how will we make up the revenue when these people aren't there to support our cause anymore?

Are we being too drastic? Research shows that, in the U.S. alone, the silent generation (those born between 1925 and 1945) is declining by 1 million people each year. That's more than 19,000 a week. Whether you're getting a high volume of low-dollar gifts or large contributions from folks in this generation, these donations are coming from a shrinking population.

We asked the experts at Target Analytics, which maintains a large cooperative database, to take a look at the data. They found that approximately 80 percent of donors to national health groups are 65 years of age or older, representing 76 percent of the organizations' contributions revenue. Many other types of nonprofits are finding the same unwelcome surprise. The question is -- what will they choose to do about it? The hockey star Wayne Gretzky once famously said, "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." Are you sticking with where your donors are now or are you anticipating their new locations?

These organizations -- like many others in somewhat less drastic situations -- are grappling with a phenomenon we call supporter shift. Supporter shift, as we define it, is the change (either current or inevitable) in the composition of the group of people who care enough about your organization to help you. They are broader than donors, who give you money, if you can successfully connect with them.

Supporter shift is, certainly, a product of time. People age. But more than that, it's a result of the ever-increasing speed of change and a generational shift in priorities. Although our grandparents and parents witnessed many incredible innovations -- the airplane, the microwave oven, and the hand-held calculator, to name just a few -- technology innovation (and adoption) has continued to outdo itself. Consider the following data from Socialnomics: It took 38 years for the radio to reach 50 million users. TV hit the same milestone in 13 years. The Internet only took four. And Facebook, well, twice as many people -- that's 100 million users -- signed on within nine months of launch.

Supporter shift is happening, like it or not. In our next few posts, we'll dig more into what this means and how nonprofits can reorient their thinking so they aren't left behind. In the meantime, let us know what you think. Have you seen supporter shift at play at a nonprofit you care about?