07/23/2013 04:16 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

We Raised Money From a Millennial! Now Let's Raise the Bar

Asking a Millennial for money is difficult.

It's a problem I've been struggling with for a few years now. Why is it easier to cop a $500 check from my grandparents' next-door neighbor than to convince a close friend to give $20 to a cause they claim to care about? My friends are the first to show their support with a tweet, but asking them in person to make a financial gift is a parents-making-out-level awkward fest.

Perhaps it's because Millennials are so anxiously self-aware - stuffed full of advertising slogans and personal best trophies. Perhaps they're victims of their own narcissism -- uncomfortable with the idea that they might disappoint someone by saying "no." Perhaps it's just their parents' fault. (Am I right, @itsalexisneiers?)

Whatever the reason, the statistics agree: only 17 percent of Millennials prefer a face-to-face "ask." Development through relationships was a key component of baby-boomer philanthropy, but Millennials prefer immediate, impulsive demonstrations of support for causes that resonate with them in the place they know best: the Internet.

New technology has created a world in which Millennials believe they experience their most authentic selves online. Effectively tapping into this e-consciousness for fundraising is hard, and only a few organizations have done so successfully. Success seems based on helping Millennials "discover" global issues for themselves, and then giving them the tools to act on their discovery instantly by donating or posting to their Facebook wall.

Huzzah! We've cracked the code! But how can we take that interaction a step further? How can we create real, personal experiences that unite Millennials more intimately to a cause... especially without recourse to an actual, face-to-face conversation?

We need to push beyond fundraising, and we need to do it online.

Take water poverty, for instance. Most of us are familiar with the headline statistic for the water crisis: nearly one billion people live without access to source of clean water. Less familiar are these statistics: the average American uses over 100 gallons of water a day, and 69 percent of us take clean water completely for granted.

Together, the numbers suggest that Americans have no frame of reference for water poverty, no way to connect personally. That even if we can be convinced to donate -- to run our marathons or sacrifice our birthday presents -- truly relating to a person suffering water poverty in a way that shifts our own worldview is a different, larger challenge.

Millennials are not their parent's generation. I should know -- I'm one of them. But our weaknesses are also our strengths. We're curious, empathetic, globally minded, and willing to try anything. Non-profit organizations have a responsibility to take fundraising a step further and empower us to create change in our own lives. The Internet can help.

This Fall we're experimenting with our own solution here at DIGDEEP -- challenging Americans (not just Millennials!) to simulate water poverty by living on just four liters of water a day. That's just four liters for everything: drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. The 4Liter Challenge will be weird, personal and a little irreverent -- just like most Millennials I know. Of course, the experience will live online, using the platform at to unite tweets, photos, blog posts, and videos into a single live-stream of the experience. (If it didn't happen online, did it happen at all?)

4Liters is more than an ask, it's an experience. Not a cheap, allegorical museum exhibit, but a deeply personal intrusion into our everyday lives. One that also happens to be quirky, eye opening, and fun. 4Liters expects more from Millennials than their attention or their money -- it asks them to surrender their perspective. I hope it's just the first of countless tools like it.

Dropping by a friend's apartment to talk about the evils of Dirty Water might not get them to open their checkbook anymore. (Who knows if they even have a checkbook?) But that doesn't mean it's time to close up shop. We've proven that Millennials will give -- now it's time to ask them to give more.