Recently I attended a workshop at Communities Foundation of Texas hosting Sharna Goldseker from 21/64. The conversation was titled “Generations of Generosity: How Traditionalists, Boomers, GenXers and Millennials Give.”
The event revolved around a group process at our tables where we had a drawing of a person from one of the four generational groups –
- Traditionalists born 1925-1945
- Boomers born 1946-1964
- Gen x born 1965-1980
- Millennials born 1981-2000
These categories are based on the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss – Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069.
Our task in the group was to identify the formative generational life experiences (write those around the figure) and the internal thoughts and attitudes and feelings that might result from these experiences. For instance, Traditionalists lived through the depression and rationing of WWII, so frugality is a common trait among them. Boomers came to adulthood during the civil rights era and Viet Nam conflict – they are often motivated by causes. Generation X saw Iran Contra, Church sex scandals so they tend to be cynical and distrusting of institutions. Generation Y / Millennials are the technology generation, have never known a time without computers and the internet, and were raised by boomers, so they are impatient, and want to be involved directly in decision making and impact.
These are broad brush categories and descriptions, but they hold true for a large portion of the population. When there is a seeming communication gap or disconnect, these may help offer some explanation. When an institution – Foundation, NonProfit, or Religious Organization – is wanting to connect with new generations of contributors, board members and engaged community partners, understanding the generational trait can provide needed insight.
If Millennials do not see how they can participate and can’t measure the impact, they will not participate, no matter how “wonderful the organization or cause.” Boomers are still motivated by cause – help them see how the organization connects to and furthers causes about which they care and with which they can engage. Gen X cohort tend to be cynical, presenting a “prove it to me” posture and attitude. Underneath and behind that wall is a deep desire to do good and make the world a better place. They were latchkey kids, so they are trained to figure things out and do things on their own, not waiting around for permission from authorities. This makes them great innovators and hard workers.
One of the challenges not discussed was how to engage one group without alienating others. Younger generations tend to be drawn toward more edgy marketing and story telling, and are often more progressive about social issues.While we should not prejudge how people will respond, we also may want to consider how traditionalists will respond to a marketing campaign designed to connect with Millennials. Will they be offended? Will they even understand it? “Communication is not what you say, but what people hear.”* So it is OUR RESPONSIBILITY to understand HOW people hear, if we want to engage them in the conversation.
One way to approach this is simply to ask, “When I say XYZ (give, donate, volunteer, etc) what do you hear? What runs through your mind? What are your questions? What is most important to you?”
Goldseker is the co-author of #NextGenDonors. I was very interested that there was no social media connection information provided until the end of the presentation. I was attempting to post to Twitter and Facebook, but could not easily identify the hashtags or handles to use. We finally did get #NextGenDonors on Facebook and Twitter, and I found @2164Buzz on Twitter. I’m squarely in Gen X (born 1970) and I use social media to share ideas with colleagues and engage the larger community in conversation about topics that I find important. Not being able to do this easily, and more specifically not being encouraged and enabled to do this, at a session about Next Gen Donors, was confusing to me. Perhaps CF Texas only uses twitter for specific campaigns like North Texas Giving Day. I wonder if my friends at SparkFarm have any thoughts about this?
What does your organization do to connect with each generation? Do you intentionally focus on only one or two demographic groups, or do you try to connect with all four? What resources do you find most helpful?
* Michael Moynahan SJ. “Incarnation.” Hearts on Fire. Michael Harter SJ. ed