Inspiring Younger Donors

‘Most recent gift value’ has the greatest influence on fundraising, even though it is the weakest piece of statistical information.  Gift value influences the timing and quality of acknowledgment of donors’ contributions and, most important, determines whether supporters will or will not receive meaningful communication on their gifts at work.  Since these things, more than anything else, drive donors’ desire to stay loyal and give more generously, it’s logical to conclude that people whose gift values are defined by fundraising as “modest” are statistically more likely to either stop giving entirely or make ongoing contributions that are well below their potential.

This seems to be particularly true of younger donors.  In my company’s recent national survey on how the recession is affecting Americans’ philanthropy, 12.6% of respondents (2200) were under the age of 35.  Their total average giving in 2008 was $1613, a mere 12% of the total average contributions of older donors at $13,200.  But if you set average gift value aside and look at other factors, young donors’ ability and willingness to give might surprise you.

Here are a few facts that you might not be taking into account:

  • 69% of donors under the age of 35 are professionals, academics, owners, managers or entrepreneurs
  • 47% earn over $70,000 (52% if you look only at donors between 25 and 34 who are less likely to still be in college)
  • 70% are not supporting dependents

If I hadn’t told you the age of this group, would you be looking at them differently?

And, here’s a few of the other things we found:

  • 62% of young donors plan to maintain or increase their giving in 2009 – more than any other age group in the study
  • young donors are significantly more open to giving to a cause that they had never supported before, even in a severe recession
  • young donors are more likely to give through technology-driven appeals that are less costly to operate and which produce higher average gift values (such as online giving.)
  • young donors are more likely to engage in fundraising programs where they give and volunteer or generate gifts from others at the same time (such as participating in a pledge-based community fundraising event.)

And, speaking of volunteering, approximately two thirds of young donors were volunteering at the time they took part in our survey, or within the past twelve months – the same percentage as for all other study donors – but only 10% were sitting on Boards of Directors, vs 29% of all other donors who volunteer.

I’ll leave you to contemplate these two questions:

  1. Do young donors give substantially less because they can’t give more or because substantially less is expected of them?
  2. Do fewer young donors sit on Boards because they don’t want their voices heard or because they can’t get their voices heard within structures designed for another generation?

What’s my opinion?  I think they need to be noticed…then they need to be accommodated…then they need to be inspired.


In the fall, Penelope will be exploring the subject of young donors and philanthropy as well as many other intriguing findings of her company’s research in the series of full-day seminars, From Peril to Profit.  Please click here for information on cites, dates, and registration information.

Showing 13 comments
  • Lisa

    Great article. It’s true – the younger age group thinks nothing of spending $70-100 on a night out, of for a pair of shoes, so why ask them to donate $35?

  • Cynthia Pacia

    This is a fantastic post! Thank you so much for sharing this information.

    Giving circles are a perfect activity for young donors. We recently launched a giving circle at Rochester Area Community Foundation and have had a wonderful response from our young professional community. They are excited to get involved in learning about the needs in our community and what nonprofits are doing. We consider this giving circle an investment in our community because we are helping to train and impassion the next generation of philanthropists!

  • evelyn


    This is very interesting information. I have a couple questions:

    1) Of the younger donors surveyed, where did most of their contributions go? What causes or organizations did they donate to?

    2) Could the survey results have been skewed due to the recent election and the younger demographic that donated heavily to the Obama campaign?



    Hello Evelyn,

    1.) Causes respondents gave to in 2008:

    CAUSE | 18-34 | 35-44 | 45-54 | 55-64 | 65+
    ——- ——- ——- —— ——
    International Affairs | 30.7% | 27.4% | 31.0% | 38.0% | 37.7%
    Environment | 30.6% | 33.9% | 39.0% | 44.5% | 49.7%
    Arts and Culture | 28.9% | 37.7% | 43.0% | 49.4% | 56.9%
    Human Services | 76.1% | 82.6% | 85.1% | 85.7% | 83.2%
    Animals | 33.6% | 43.0% | 43.6% | 45.6% | 42.7%
    Education | 40.5% | 47.7% | 51.6% | 51.7% | 60.1%
    Relgion | 37.4% | 44.4% | 51.8% | 52.3% | 60.6%
    Grant Making | 5.1% | 7.0% | 8.4% | 9.0% | 9.6%
    Public/Society Benefit | 22.7% | 21.5% | 25.5% | 29.9% | 31.6%
    Health | 49.2% | 54.4% | 59.3% | 58.3% | 61.1%
    ——- ——- ——- —— ——

    2.) No, that would not be a factor due to the manner in which we solicited respondents to our study. We reached out to known donors through 69 partner not-for-profits who asked their supporters directly to go online and complete our survey. Our study is well represented by every age group, not just younger donors.

    Kind regards,

  • Rebecca

    Great entry Penelope! Your findings are interesting and your questions posted at the end are very great. As a “30 something” myself and someone who works in the philanthropic profession I believe there is a lot of untapped potential with our younger donors. I have been doing a lot of research on generational giving and feel this audience deserves more attention from our sector. Thank you for your thoughts and raising the topic.

  • Kelly Myers

    Tremendous blog Penelope!! I agree with you (and Lisa), the younger set is capable of giving, they think nothing of spending $100 on a night out. Perhaps we have not offered this cohort the attention that they deserve.

  • Dawn

    Thank you for this good commentary. I fall into this age category you discuss. My own philanthropic involvement was massively influenced by a father who modeled philanthropy for me and by an invitation I received in college to join a hands on board. I was even given full voting rights and treated with more respect and encouragement than I can put words to. The days of 50-something only boards have got to start going by the wayside.

    I also think that the more ways nonprofits can directly engage this generation, the donations will follow. My husband wasn’t lucky enough to have giving modeled for him but as soon as i started taking him with me to events and activities surrounding causes I support, he “got” why I wanted us to invest to support causes closest to our hearts that make the world a little better.

  • Peter Gabak

    Very informative! I am working as a consultant with a statewide historical association who is now stuggling with the average age of their membership (which is 65+). One of my recommendations was that they consider a more diverse board. So a younger board would be more like the population they desire to attract in order to keep the organization going. Your research is invaluable!

  • Gail Perry

    Penelope, you have done it again! Sharing cutting edge, provocative information that transforms our perspective on an important donor segment – and our future. Hope you are well and thanks. I’ll tweet this and post a comment on my own blog sending folks here. I continue to quote you in all my speaking engagements as the guru of all gurus! Gail

  • Bobbi Krebs-McMull

    Thank you for another well-researched finding. After working with a number of nonprofits in my rural area, it seems aging boards and a downturn in donations is a common theme. Your research supports the idea that a board that lowers its average age and includes a younger donor population in its development plan would be wise. Ideas for inexpensive ways to select that younger target audience would be also be appreciated. Thanks again.

  • Penelope Fan


    As a 20-something myself, I completely agree with you. My generation could be the next “great generation” when you look at the economy, war on terror, etc. Today’s college graduates are fighting one of the highest unemployment rates in decades and competing for jobs with experienced retirees who are reentering the workforce now that their retirement accounts have lost 30% or more. Unfortunately, as my generation gets older, many begin to see the government as the solution to right the country’s wrongs rather than nonprofits (the recent Presidential election is already evidence of that movement).

    I also believe too many nonprofits aren’t harnessing the unique contributions that younger EMPLOYEES bring to their organizations. As nonprofit baby-boomer leaders near retirement, are we focusing on succession planning among the next generation? Are we preparing them for nonprofit careers, or are we just hoping that when today’s leaders retire, the younger for-profit leaders will decide to make a career change (and take a pay cut) in order to lead the leaderless nonprofits? They certainly won’t… not if “big government” is the solution they’ve already come to accept.

    I’d love to see more research about my generation. Give us a voice and we’ll show you just how loud we can yell.

  • Reply

    Dear Penelope –

    Thank you, again, for bringing a significant opportunity to our attention. Where would I and the organizations with which I work be today had my elders been as reluctant 20-30 years ago as we boomers have become to seriously engage younger generations in not-for-profit governance and fundraising? As a group, today’s young people know far more than we did at their age about not-for-profit management. We need their knowledge, energy, fresh ideas and financial support to effectively move our organizations forward. Smart organizations will find ways to transform their boards and fundraising programs to accommodate the talents and needs of young leaders.

  • Ed

    I’m struck by the disparity in giving to Arts and Culture between the youngest donors in your sampling (28.9% for age 34 and below) and the oldest (56.9% for age 65+). Just an observation.

    Great article!

  • Young without disposable income

    As a young donor who carefully weighs every donation I make, and generally makes donations in the range of $25-$30 because that’s what I can afford, I am personally offended by some of the comments on here that people my age don’t think anything about dropping $100 on a night out or a pair of shoes.

    I am an accomplished, college-educated professional, as are most of my friends my age. I do not make even close to $70K a year, nor do my friends, and every donation we make is an example of sacrificial giving. Research shows that the real income (factoring in cost of living) for my generation has dropped significantly in the past decade.

    Let me assure you, I think long and hard about dropping $100 on anything. The most expensive pair of shows I have ever bought was an $80 pair of running shoes I got a few weeks ago–because I am participating in the Leukemia and Lymphoma’s Team in Training program and preparing to run a half-marathon. I never would have spent that much for shoes for my own personal enjoyment. I can’t afford to give thousands of dollars for cancer research, so instead I am giving my time and energy to RAISE thousands of dollars.

    I say all this because I think it is important for my fellow fundraisers to understand that philanthropy IS important to my generation. But for most of us, our giving is limited by our means, and if you receive a gift from us, it’s because we either feel very strongly about the organization, or because we have a close relationship with someone who is connected to your organization. Our giving choices are not lightly made–and often we give our time rather than our pocketbooks.

    So please think carefully about how you view your relationships with us. Engagement is the key–we want to feel we are making a difference, and not just by writing a check. Build true relationships with us now, and when we do have the means, we’ll become loyal donors.

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