THE BLOG
01/20/2015 10:27 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Why Millennials Don't Put Money In The Church Offering Plate

Luxury shoppers in the Millennial generation have been given a label by the retail industry: HENRY, meaning "High Earner, Not Rich Yet." These young adults have good cash flow but very little accumulated wealth, choosing to rent an apartment instead of buy a house, and using Uber instead of purchasing a car. Retailers, who sense that Millennials are more attracted to craftsmanship than to brand names, are trying to capture their dollars by offering products that have quality and authenticity.

Churches and other charitable organizations will have to grasp Millennial sensibilities as well, if they want to attract the donations of this generation. From online giving to the structure of capital campaigns, non-profits are challenged to adopt Millennial-sensitive approaches to fund-raising, while not alienating Baby Boomers and older generations.

For starters, Millennials demand electronic giving options, whether they are offered through a kiosk in a church lobby or an online giving button on a charitable organization's website. Olu Brown, pastor of Impact Church in Atlanta, says that if you pass an offering plate to a Millennial, you will get the $5 cash she has in her purse. But if you put an electronic kiosk in your church lobby, she will make a much bigger gift -- probably closer to the $30 she'll put on her credit card when she goes out to brunch after the church service.

Such an approach can be offensive to older generations, who consider the passing of the offering plate to be an act of worship. But Millennials don't carry much cash, and many have moved away entirely from writing checks, preferring to pay their bills online. Unless churches offer electronic giving options, they will lose the gifts of HENRYs who want to support their congregations using debit cards and credit cards. At Fairfax Presbyterian Church, we have an online giving option on our website, but still pass the plates on Sunday mornings for those who prefer to give by cash or check.

Millennials also look for quality and authenticity in their churches and charitable organizations, just as they do with their consumer products. This generation of consumers is not very interested in brand names, and in similar manner they will not support a church simply because it is part of an established denomination. In my congregation, young adults give because of quality music and preaching, hands-on mission projects that help the poor both here and abroad, and a congregational vision that aligns with their beliefs. Generosity is not unleashed by the fact that we are part of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But how can non-profits attract sizable gifts from young adults who are high earners but "not rich yet"? This challenge arises when an organization launches a capital campaign, seeking large donations to construct a new building or renovate an old one. To be sure, many churches are moving away from construction projects, preferring to meet in rental spaces and focus their budgets on ministry and mission. But still there are many congregations that need to raise money for buildings, right alongside the appeals being made by private schools and other charitable organizations.

In the 1990s, when I was pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, a congregational leader told me that "Presbyterians reach into different pockets for their gifts. For their weekly giving they reach into one pocket. For a capital campaign, they reach into another pocket." He was telling me that weekly giving comes out of a member's salary, while large special gifts come out of a member's accumulated wealth -- savings accounts, stocks, bonds, maybe even real estate.

That may have been true for Baby Boomers and older generations, but I question whether it is the case today. Traditional pensions have disappeared rapidly, so Millennials are forced to take responsibility for saving for their retirements. They certainly cannot be expected to dip into their retirement pocket to fund a capital campaign. And since Millennials are in the early years of adulthood, they don't have the accumulated wealth that comes from large savings accounts, stock portfolios, or equity in a home.

So what can churches and charitable organizations do? They can tap into the earnings of young adults over time, offering electronic giving options that enable Millennials to give large gifts over the course of multiple years. And they will have to make appeals with a focus on quality and authenticity, not assuming that denominational loyalty and buildings are going to appeal to young adults as they did to their parents and grandparents. New approaches are clearly needed as non-profits seek the philanthropy of Millennials in support of the good work of social service, education, and inspiration in our communities and world.