Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement

Kari Dunn Saratovsky and Derrick Feldmann, the authors of Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement, believe that nonprofit organizations must change the way they go about their business if they hope to connect with the rising millennial generation. But Gen-Xers, baby boomers, and older nonprofit leaders need not run for the hills. Anticipating a certain amount of generational skepticism and pushback, Saratovsky, former vice president of social innovation at the Case Foundation, and Feldmann, CEO of Achieve (and a frequent contributor to PND), do a lot of hand-holding as they guide the non-millennial reader through the process and practical steps needed to develop and implement a long-term engagement strategy for millennials.

According to Saratovsky and Feldmann, the "why" of millennial engagement is simple: nonprofits can"t afford notto engage millennials on millennials' own terms if their organizations are to thrive. In part, that's because millennials boast $62.7 billion in discretionary spending power and, perhaps more importantly, are in line to inherit some $41 trillion in wealth from their parents and grandparents. What's more, Saratovsky and Feldmann argue, millennials insist on being actively engaged, as opposed to simply solicited, and are driven by personal relationships based on trust.

The "how" is more complicated. Saratovsky and Feldmann propose a "Millennial Engagement Platform" comprised of four "operational and cultural components" "leadership inviting" (i.e., inviting and empowering millennials to connect with the organization's decision makers); transparency; social connectivity; and a solution-inspired environment. To implement the platform effectively, however, an organization first needs to "BUILD" it:

  • Be unified as an organization about working with the millennial generation;
  • Understand the complexities of the technological and cultural environment in which millennials have grown up;
  • Identify those seeking to make a difference through calls to action and peer identification;
  • Lead through conversational and relationship-oriented engagement rather than focusing on event attendance figures; and
  • Determine and institutionalize how the organization wants millennials to be involved and to what end.

How, in practical terms, does an organization actually build such a platform? To get you started, Saratovsky and Feldmann highlight several characteristics of the way millennials communicate, take action, influence their peers, donate their time and money, and/or view their roles in the workplace, as well as how they are changing nonprofit culture from within. Devoting a chapter to each of these six areas, the authors demonstrate how the four MEP components and five BUILD strategies can be tailored to millennial behavioral patterns illustrating how, for example, nonprofits connected with more millennials, improved millennial volunteer retention, and/or increased giving from millennials by appealing to their preference for communicating via social media, hands-on engagement, transparency, etc. At the end of each chapter, Saratovsky and Feldmann present a customized MEP chart summarizing the key points and takeaways from the chapter, as well as "a note to the executive leader" in which they address a familiar concern related to the topic in an affirming way.

For instance, the "Generation Connected" chapter uses the recent "Take Back the Pink" campaign to illustrate how millennials leveraged the power of technology and social media to rally real-time support for Planned Parenthood and a woman's right to make her own reproductive health decisions after breast cancer organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced early in 2012 that it was pulling its funding for breast health services at Planned Parenthood affiliates around the country. As Saratovsky and Feldmann explain it, within a day of the announcement six prominent nonprofit bloggers Lucy Bernholz, Lisa Colton, Allison Fine, Beth Kanter, Stephanie Rudat, and Amy Sample Ward shared their outrage at Komen's decision through a series of blog posts. One thing led to another, and before the folks at Komen knew what hit them, the six had launched a widely followed social media campaign that was able to "jump" the Komen hashtag on Twitter during the Super Bowl, "garnering thousands of social media impressions over the next few days" and, ultimately, forcing Komen to reverse its decision. In the chapter's MEP section, under "Tangible Transparency," the authors write:

People want and expect to connect in real time to real people, not to logos or avatars. They want the opportunity to engage in real conversations that include an honest and transparent back-and-forth, not one-way communications....The key, therefore, is actually quite simple: Organizations must get smarter about humanizing their interaction with constituents and act more like people, not formal institutions....

Obvious, perhaps. And yet non-millennials struggling to navigate today's social media-dominated landscape will no doubt welcome the reminder.

Other chapters highlight specific ways in which nonprofits can apply the core components of the MEP platform to each area of engagement, including inviting "free agents" to meet with leadership and provide input, discussing in a transparent fashion how fundraising income will be used, tapping existing social networks to promote interest among potential volunteers, and enabling millennial employees to develop solutions of their own.

Even more helpful are the "Five Key Takeaways" that Saratovsky and Feldmann include at the end of each chapter concrete steps for organizations to take such as: "Create at least one shareable action on each page of your Web site"; "Create new opportunities that allow [m]illennials to volunteer virtually"; and "Focus on participation in the fundraising process by creating micro giving campaigns that start at the $5 or $10 level."

Given that the four core components of the MEP platform are connected, there's a certain amount of overlap among chapters, which causes the book to feel repetitive in places. And the many examples and frequently chatty exposition give some chapters a rather unfocused feel. By the same token, the repetition and multiple MEP charts have the effect of presenting millennials who many of their elders see as undisciplined "slacktivists" with short attention spans as focused, energetic, and outcomes-oriented.

The most reassuring aspect of the book, however, is its message that millennials are passionate about making a difference and changing the world for the better. If you can speak their language and connect with them where they live, you just may discover they also are amazingly loyal and can be incredibly effective advocates for your organization. Cause for Change is an invaluable guide for any nonprofit leader ready to embrace that future.

Kyoko Uchida
Features Editor, PND
Foundation Center
New York, New York