The Catholic Fundraiser

The Millennial Mystery: How to Attract and Retain Millennial Donors

Posted by Zach Busekrus on 3/7/19 3:29 PM


How often do you step back from your work as a Catholic fundraiser and ask yourself whether your efforts are resonating with your constituents in the ways they should? What do you think you’d find if you did?

I think we’d all encounter a gap of sorts. A gap between the work we aspire to do and the work we’re actually doing, between the results we’d like to see and the results we are really seeing — especially as these results pertain to attracting the next generations of supporters.

Reacting and Adapting to Change

The reality is that it’s just hard to be a Catholic fundraiser in 2019. We’re living through real moments of disruption; disruption of communication preferences, disruption of charitable giving behavior, disruption in the Church — just to name a few.

And much of this disruption is being caused by the changes in preferences, behaviors, and ideologies of the world’s most popular, hyper-analyzed, and over-generalized generation to date — Millennials.

In moments of disruption, one of two things tends to happen:

  1. We see a total upheaval of businesses and the demise of entire industries (think about the relationship between Amazon and brick-and-mortar retail stores)

  2. We see creative pivots, augmentations, and repositionings of businesses and industries (think about the relationship between Uber and the gig economy and the Taxi and labor unions)

How to Attract Millennial Donors

Many of the talks I’ve heard and articles I’ve read over the past couple of years about Millennial charitable giving behavior suggest that today’s nonprofit organizations need to dismantle yesterday’s legacy in order to build an attractive platform for tomorrow’s donors (become Amazon or you’ll wind-up like Borders).

And while nonprofits (and Catholic organizations in particular) must change some antiquated communications behaviors and giving programs, these changes should elicit sentiments of creative augmentation and strategic repositioning — not a total redefinition of an organization’s identity.

The challenge for today’s Catholic fundraiser is to authentically position a set of its programs and/or areas of mission in a way that both aligns with the organization’s core identity and Millennials' expectations of the twenty-first century nonprofit.

So how do you do this? First, by knowing what expectations Millennials actually have for 501C3s in 2019. Second, by identifying what areas of mission within your organization do align or could align with these expectations. And third, by launching a strategic fundraising and communications plan that effectively meets, or even surpasses, these expectations.

Millennials' Expectations: Charity is not just a noun to them, it’s a verb too.  

Millennials are combining traditional forms of activism with social media channels to make their voices heard. Many believe that they can trust only themselves to create the kind of change that they want to see in the world. They are also more cognizant of the moral weight of their purchasing power than other generations (which is why we’ve seen a rise in brands like TOMS and Warby Parker who give a pair of shoes or glasses to someone in need each time you or I make a purchase).

Millennials care deeply about channeling their energy, skills, and disposable income toward social good. Many desire to be invited into spaces where they can co-create solutions to problems and issues around socioeconomic inequality or other forms of injustice. This generation has a great desire to redefine the culture and perceptions around aid and charitable giving. Organizations like charity: water have responded to this desire through proactive communication, root cause identification, impact reporting, and 100 percent giving.

Millennials also expect widespread transparency from any organization they donate to. They aren’t necessarily cynics, but they don’t trust implicitly either. Transparency and open, honest communication are key elements of what makes a charity attractive.

This generation expects nonprofits to develop programming that addresses the root cause of an issue, to find ways to cover overhead costs so that 100 percent of the public’s dollar is going directly into the field, and to regularly report on the impact and outcomes that are being realized (or not being realized) through the organization’s efforts.

Millennials have fundamentally changed the fundraising experience.

Despite popular belief, Millennials are not only interested in volunteering or digitally advocating for an organization through social media shares. In fact, “84 percent of Millennial workers made a charitable donation in the past 12 months” according to the most recent Millennial Impact Report.

The same study found that fifty-two percent of Millennials said they would be interested in a monthly donation to charity. This makes sense given their fondness for what some commenters are calling the Membership Economy, which refers to the growing trend of consumers paying a monthly fee for use of a service or product (think Netflix, Spotify Premium, Audible, etc.).

The number one way Millennials prefer to give is online, and they expect to be given options when making a donation. Millennials want to be able to pick where their money actually goes. They want their $27 to go to Zambia to help rebuild the school you talked about in your appeal, not to “where the need is greatest” (many have trust-issues with the beloved general fund).

These are the changes organizations must make to attract next generation supporters.

Catholic organizations are notorious for doing a little bit of everything — a little bit of pastoral work, development work, some relief work on the side, etc. Mission statements are often ambiguous and unnecessarily long, written more for bureaucratic or political reasons than for the understanding of the prospective donor. To attract Millennial donors, these issues need to be addressed.


By orchestrating a brand pivot or developing a sub-brand that resonates digitally, ideologically, and organizationally with Millennials, Catholic organizations can begin to build a sustainable community of advocates today that will become the financial supporting beams for tomorrow’s mission projects.  

This could look like developing a special initiative that focuses on just one or two of your mission projects — sort of like an extended, focused campaign. Organizations should also design a microsite around this initiative and determine a way to ensure that 100 percent of the funds raised within the context of this initiative are allocated in full to the projects specified.

The Why Behind the What: How These Changes Benefit Catholic Nonprofits

Catholic organizations of differing sizes are embarking on this journey to determine what areas of mission resonate most with younger audiences, what their future programming should look like, and how to authentically report back to donors on the meaningful impact of their support.

But why do any of this? Because Millennials aren’t just a subset of your donors. They’re your organization’s future. If Catholic nonprofits can’t figure out how to adapt their organizations to meet the expectations of the contemporary donor, the Millennial dollar (and yes, even the Millennial Catholic dollar) will go to the organizations that can.

Let’s work together to close gaps that exist around transparency, accountability, and reliability in Catholic fundraising. Let’s dig deep and explore the ways in which we, as a community, can maintain the legacy and integrity of our organizations while also pivoting our strategies, communications, programming, and financial models in ways that take advantage of 21st-century fundraising resources and resonate with Millennial supporters.

While this work may not be easy, it will encourage us to remember what we’ve done and where we’ve been. It will also encourage us to ask the hard questions about what we’re doing and where we’re going. It will prompt us to reconnect with the mission and vision of not just our organization, but of our hopes and dreams for the cause we serve at large. And I think that this state of action-oriented inquiry, this place of proactive discernment of “what’s next”, is exactly where Catholic fundraisers need to be in 2019.

If you want more insights on what the data says about appealing to Millennial donors, join us for our March 27 workshop — Dispelling Myths About Millennial Charitable Giving: What the Data Really Says About How to Raise Money From Gen Y.

Zach Busekrus

Written by Zach Busekrus

Zach is the Director of Marketing Strategy at Direct Development and excels at developing custom content marketing strategies for nonprofit organizations. He leads the strategic planning of communications plans that are based on data-driven methodologies and tactics that optimize conversions. He manages teams of content creators and marketing automation specialists to produce innovative digital campaigns that help organizations beyond their traditional marketing capabilities.