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Millennials challenge status quo by redefining charity within the sector

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Special to Philanthropy Journal

By Amber Smith

Millennials are a hot topic in philanthropy. Some critics say we are obsessed with money and unconcerned with giving back to our community. They contend that those born after 1982 are less interested in “inherent principals like self-acceptance, affiliation and community.” In May, Time magazine ran a cover story about the Me Me Me Generation, which branded us as “lazy” while also declaring that “they’ll save us all.”

At age 30, I am glad to be a member of this growing group of social influencers. Millennials are champions of social change, right down to the way we’re shaping how charity works. Here are three major ways my generation is continuing to influence the sector:

1. First, we’re getting rid of the word “charity,” or at least reinventing its meaning.

Hand-outs. Soup kitchens. These are the things people think of when they hear the word charity, a term the social fundraising platform razoo suggests should be replaced with “partner.”  Millennials are keen on looking past putting Band-aids on problems and digging deep to figure out solutions to these problems from the ground-up.

What does it mean? 

This mentality of pondering what lies “beyond the Band-aid” is increasing sector dialogue about how to make the biggest difference – especially regarding whether the traditional nonprofit model can foot the bill. Millennials have grown up alongside social enterprise. We have witnessed the rise of the B Corporations that seek to address social and environmental challenges. We’ve been disappointed by society’s lack of progress on major issues like homelessness, sustainability and more.

The truth is, we don’t care what legal status an organization has; we care about whether it can get results. The word “charity” feels outdated to us because it invokes the image of an endless cycle of unsolvable problems. We crave a term that packs a bigger punch, one that inspires us to envision the world changing.

2. We’re demanding visible connections between action and impact.

Millennials don’t blithely accept that “giving and volunteering is good ‘because it is’.” This generation wants to know why it’s good, how it’s good, and for whom it’s good. In a world with no lack of social issues or organizations trying to address them, we want to know why we should devote our time or money to this cause rather than that cause, and showing us how our actions connect to an organizations’ impact is vital to striking a chord with us.

What does it mean?

Organizations must focus on their reportable outcomes above all else to impress Millennials. We don’t care if we’ve volunteered 100 hours or given $1,000. We want to know how our volunteering helped an at-risk teen make it to college, or how our donation saved a dog’s life or preserved a forest. We love models like Kiva‘s because we know how – and who – our contribution will help before we break out our wallets.  

3. We’re moving away from top-down bureaucracy to horizontal, networked efforts.

Millennials’ social networking savvy and demand for connection has made it so that having a lot of social capital isn’t just icing on the cake for social impact organizations, it’s vital to survival. In a world where people can hear about a natural disaster more quickly on Twitter than they can through the news, connection is the lifeblood for action. And it’s not just online, it’s offline, through personal connection, too – Nearly a quarter of donors give because of a personal connection, and nearly half of all new volunteers get involved because someone they know asked them to.

What does it mean?

Millennials are attracted to organizations that operate on connections, in which we have the opportunity to grow, become empowered and perhaps even lead. And organizations don’t have to be small or traditionally grassroots in order to snag Millennial supporters; they simply have to:

a) Adopt a culture of friendliness and accessibility. This means communicating, answering emails and phone calls, and being open to new ideas from within the organization and beyond.

b) Make relationship-building part of everyday operations. Organizations should invite partnership and collaboration whenever possible. It’s a win-win, because your partners’ audiences just may become yours, too.

c) Be present, physically. Organization staff should make a point to be visible and talk to people as often as possible. Staying in front of individuals- in person – builds on that culture of accessibility.


Amber Smith completed the Masters in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management program at NC State University in December 2011. She founded Activate Good at 21 and serves as its executive director. The Raleigh-based nonprofit  connects individuals, groups and companies to volunteer needs with partnering nonprofits in Wake County and the greater Triangle. Smith blogs at Heart of Zeal.

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