07/23/2013 08:59 am ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

Four M's of Millennial Giving: Micro, Meaningful, Mobile and Monthly

As a child in Bangladesh, I learned to walk past heartbreaking scenes of poverty and suffering every day, looking away with the notion in the back of my mind that "someday, I'll be able to help." After I finished college and started climbing the corporate ladder, however, "someday" kept getting pushed back to a vague time when I'd have more money: enough to really make a difference in my homeland, my adopted city, all over the world.

It took a return visit in my late twenties to finally open my eyes. Having averted my gaze from a grieving Bengali father who could have used my spare change to properly bury his child, I realized even a small donation could make a huge difference for one family -- or, when combined with many other small amounts from my peers, for a whole community. This epiphany prompted me to create Jolkona, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that helps young professionals give small online donations to grassroots projects around the world, then receive impact reports showing how their contributions helped change specific lives.

With the launch of, we began to mobilize young professionals to support anti-poverty programs with as little as $5 at a time. Our millennial staff and volunteers instinctively knew the importance of taking the guesswork out of giving, by offering a variety of programs while simplifying the donation process through our website and social media channels. So far, we've raised nearly $700,000 for more than 160 projects, primarily from people born between 1979 and 1994. Even better, for a generation often dismissed for its limited attention span, we have a 20 percent recurring donation rate.

After four years, we've found the four keys to unlocking philanthropy for today's young professionals: micro, meaningful, mobile, and monthly.

The newly released 2013 Millennial Impact Report, produced by the Case Foundation and Achieve, strongly supports our belief that most millennials want to be active philanthropists, but need to be inspired and empowered in these four ways. While previous generations of twenty-somethings similarly had limited funds and heightened peer influences, today's young professionals are unique due to their online engagement, an immediate access to information and the ceaseless competition for their attention. Above all, as Sea Change Strategies' Alia McKee concluded at the July 18 Millennial Impact conference in Indianapolis, nonprofits really need to "show them how the money is making a difference on the ground."

This year's Millennial Impact Report also found an interest in monthly giving options, a trend we're exploring through our new Give Together subscription model. Starting at $10 a month, our members get a choice of three projects to support, related to a monthly theme. During July, our education theme gives them the option of training teachers in Myanmar, providing reading lights for students in Ghana, or sending low-income Seattle kids to math and science camp. In August, we will introduce three global health projects, followed this fall by projects related to animals, women and girls, and other subgroups that interest our donors.

While excited about Jolkona's progress, we continue to struggle with three basic challenges in engaging the millennial generation:

  1. Young people are still discovering their passions. They have a huge desire to make a difference, but aren't yet sure which causes to champion.
  2. Too many giving choices can be overwhelming, leading potential donors to get frustrated and give up.
  3. Millennials want to give their time even more than their money, to feel part of a community of likeminded idealists. But from their perspective, most organizations just want cash, at larger and larger amounts.

Jolkona and other nonprofits must tackle these challenges if we want to continue growing a community of young philanthropists. By this time next year, our new Give Together members will have learned about 36 anti-poverty programs around the world that may inspire them, while we will have continued engaging our Give Direct donors with a manageable range of 40 meaningful projects that need support. We're also working on increasing our local volunteer opportunities, educational and networking events, and global excursions, to give millennials the opportunity to experience hands-on philanthropy while finding their callings.

With roughly 80 million millennials in the United States spending about $600 billion a year, our generation's giving power remains a largely untapped resource. It's up to nonprofits to provide a multi-dimensional, continuous engagement model that enables these young professionals to give money and time in a way that fits their lifestyle. As we say at Jolkona, it's "Your choice. Your impact. Your world."