09/03/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Making "the Ask" in a Brave New World

Part I: New Allies to Fight Old Problems

Philanthropy is all about looking ahead. That means development and fundraising professionals need to identify and attract those who will become our donors of tomorrow - not just those who will sustain our work today. Fortunately, we live in a time when "millennials" connect with each other and the world - and support the causes they care about most - in unprecedented ways. This spirit of connectedness - and the instant, visible impact it can achieve - is fostering in our young people a sense of duty to take action and help others.

As nonprofit leaders, it is our duty to those we serve to do our part to support these trends and cultivate the next generation of donors. The question is: how can we do this effectively - particularly when we are often faced with limited resources?

A key part of reaching and engaging younger donors is exploiting technology to our fullest advantage. Social media and other digital technologies have made it easier and more economical than ever for philanthropic organizations and young people to connect with one other and raise money in a competitive environment. Embracing social media is now and will continue to be essential: a recent survey from the Millennial Impact Project found that eight in 10 young donors have smartphones and use them to read materials from nonprofit groups, and that three in four young donors have engaged with or shared nonprofit content on social networks. If they haven't already, philanthropic entities must redouble their digital and social media efforts to connect with a large group of people who are engaged and technologically savvy.

That said, attracting young donors isn't simply a matter of logging on and relying upon the charitable spirit of today's young people - nonprofits must be accountable and forthright in sharing the results of their work. In the survey referenced above, six out of 10 "millenial" donors said they wanted nonprofits to share stories about successful projects and programs. Young people want evidence of our good works, not platitudes about our missions. These new expectations encourage us in the nonprofit and philanthropic worlds, in an especially competitive environment, to really examine and then tell our impact story as effectively as we can.

Fortunately, generational winds are blowing in our favor. Another recent survey - from the Community Foundation of Central Florida, a public grant-making organization for nearly 400 local charitable funds - indicates that giving among young people has increased as the economy has improved. What's more, data shows that young people might actually be outpacing their older counterparts when it comes to donating. We are entering a new era of giving among young people, and the onus is on us as an industry to capture the momentum.

Even after all of this effort to communicate, update, post, tweet, and share, the donor must also feel a human connection to your work. As stewards of our organization's philanthropic programs, we need to always strive to not only acquire new donors, but retain those we have. Electronic and social media tools can help, but in the end I believe it's the emotional connection to the cause that retains donors.
Giving to an emergency appeal following a natural disaster will acquire many first-time and younger donors. But, how can they stay focused on your work following your urgent appeal? Here is the real challenge: how do you move your charitable organization into your donors' top 5 giving priorities? A donor's top 5 charities change much less frequently. More on this to follow.

Above all, we must keep in mind that today's generation of donors offers invaluable insight and expertise, and has the ability to transform the way our organizations execute our missions. We must do our due diligence to recognize the value that young people can provide in supporting our organizations - financial and otherwise. And young people themselves should heed the famous words of Gandhi and continue to strive to "be the change you wish to see in the world." After all, one can never be too young to start making a difference.

Part II of this article, "How to Land on Donors' 'Top Five' List of Charities" will appear in September.