Millennials and Social Media: Why Nonprofits Need Them to Survive

This video is a must-watch for all nonprofit leaders.  It is a keynote given by John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium Institute, at the most recent Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) conference in Atlanta. Though the speech is geared toward zoo and aquarium folks, the message here is powerful, relevant, and well-articulated for all organizations with a social mission. It is about inspiring change, remaining relevant, engaging audiences and telling stories. As with most speeches worth sharing, it’ll likely give you goosebumps. Start at minute 7 if you are pressed for time, but really, I encourage you to watch it all if you can. There is incredible thought-food here and you won’t regret it.

Within the speech, Racanelli discusses the importance of understanding and engaging Millennials. He also discusses the communication method that we grew into and have thus developed an integrated knack for understanding: social media. At some points in the keynote, Gen Y and social media are discussed separately. At other points, they are explained together. The brilliance of this speech, though—and perhaps the reason why it is so powerful—is that all of the talking points (industry evolution, remaining relevant, social media, inspiring audiences, creating change, building emotional and social bonds between people) are interconnected… and that interconnectedness seems to be necessary for zoos, aquariums, museums, and nonprofit organizations to accomplish their goals.

Often, I find that my most valued contribution to my line of work is my role as an “ambassador for my species” (the Millennial species, that is). I travel nationally and internationally to work with ZAMs and help nonprofit leaders develop ideas and initiatives by contributing a Generation Y mindset (actually, to aid in online engagement, but I cannot always divorce the two). More often than not, I’m the youngest person in the room by at least twenty years. And I’m the youngest person in the fancy restaurants, always.

We Millennials are a unique group. We are also very confusing. Especially in regard to motivation and especially for boomers (and even X’ers) trying to speak to us in our language: Boomers worked their way up the professional hierarchy but we don’t have much regard for that ladder.  Generation X fought for workplace autonomy but we’d all rather work collaboratively. And then there’s the issue of money: we are the most educated generation in history, and we have by far the most debt. However, when looking for jobs, we seek out the ones that provide mentorship, work/life balance, an opportunity to “do good” in the world, and allow us to hang out with our friends. Heck, we even value the use of a mobile device to connect with our friends more than a high-paying salary. In addition to this, we are generally skeptical about long-term loyalty to an organization,  (raising the question, “how do we get these kids to commit!?”)  … but we’ve got some good points, too! We are entrepreneurial, optimistic, and civic-minded. (Or better stated, confident, connected, and open to change).

No matter how you cut it, understanding both the growing importance of Generation Y and online engagement are absolutely necessary in order for organizations to not only remain relevant, but to inspire individuals to create positive, social change. Extrapolating (completely independently) from the powerful points made in Racanelli’s keynote, Millennials and social media – both separately and combined- provide some not-so-secret sauce for moving organizations forward. Here’s how:


Millennials and social media make it possible to tell the compelling stories that will achieve social change. As John Racanelli points out, “We, in this industry, have one of the most powerful platforms for which to tell our stories, if we tell them extremely well.” Stories (telling them and showing them) are essential in communicating social missions. We create buy-in, awe, and wonder by telling stories. As Racanelli points out: ZAMs (and all nonprofits, I’d argue) have the capacity to inspire people. That’s a role that we live up to through the stories that we tell, exhibits and programs that we share, animals/artifacts that we care for, and broader conservation/education goals.

  • Generation Y knows how to tell stories and share information virally. Millennials like to share information—which has actually garnered us negative attention. But this characteristic has some pretty serious organizational benefits, too. Millennials tell stories all of the time, and we are often well-connected to peer groups outside of the workplace. Growing up on social media, this generation already thinks in organic, online content- the kind that tells the best stories online. Many of us use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr personally. And arguably more than previous generations, we have a good grasp on what is/is not likely to be spread, shared, and well received by our peers in these spaces.
  • Social media and word of mouth marketing can increase the credibility of stories: That sounds silly, right? It’s not. People trust their friends and social media keeps people connected to their friends (and, lucky for us, their friends’ interests). This is good for organizations because barriers to entry are low for spreading a message online; people can experience a nonprofit’s story from a computer at home, on their own schedule, and they can save, share, and revisit information as desired. Social media keeps organizations “top of mind,” which aids in attracting donors and evangelists. (As a related side, social media has the potential to be especially important in telling stories for zoos, aquariums, science centers, and other organizations with animals. In fact, organizations that serve animals (and children) have the greatest success on social media. ZAMs can find a way to tap this, too.)


Millennials and social media help bring people together to build communities for change. John Racanelli calls zoos and aquariums “a sociological force with power to bring people together around ideas.” That’s a good quote, I think, for reminding ZAMs of their social power. It’s post-on-the-whiteboard worthy. But I like this one, too: “The sooner we see visitors as communities, the sooner we can activate them.” Change “visitors” to “evangelists,” and you’ve got a message that is relevant to all nonprofits.

  • Generation Y is hard-wired for social connectivity, increasing information-share and creating communities. As mentioned above, Millennials are a social, well-connected bunch within their circles. They are also public service oriented and they care about change. This makes for a winning combination: Millennials think globally and act locally. It takes connections to connect folks, and Generation Y’s social mind-set is ideal for connecting people, spreading social messages, and managing communities- especially on social networks.
  • Social media provides a platform for “rallying the troops” and building a community that is location independent. Social media can play upon the strength of weak ties  in accomplishing goals related to “rallying the troops” online. We know from experience now that social media can be an effective tool for organizing movements and bringing people together on issues. Here’s an article from Mashable about how even a smaller organization made it happen. (Please notice that this is an example tied to people coming together for the benefit of animals—Oh, the possibilities for ZAMs!)


Millennials and social media help increase public-facing transparency, which elevates trust in the organization. Here’s another little verbal gemstone from the keynote that, I think, is worth sharing: “Well, Of course [zoos and aquariums] matter. I believe our real challenge is to honor the trust our constituents and communities place in us by giving them the hope, the motive, and the inspiration to be part of the solution.” This equation cannot happen without first inspiring trust in an organization. Gen Y and social media can help.

  • Generation Y aims to build trust- and more than that, Generation Y can be most trusting. Or, at least more trusting toward organizations than Generation X or Boomers ever were, as Racanelli points out. We’ve got some over-share going on and when friends or organizations don’t also share organic, timely messaging, we lose trust. We wonder what is being hidden. Our trust is hard to gain through traditional marketing methods. Millennials are beneficial in the area of building online trust because it ties in to the way that we understand organizations ourselves.
  • Social media is a mecca for word of mouth marketing and honest reviews of organizations, helping to bring to light the effective “behind the scenes” of organizations. The best organizations on social media embrace this. They use online platforms to share “behind the scenes” information that creates a community of “insiders” (read: potential evangelists and free agents for your cause). Studies have found that people online don’t trust an organization’s website as much as they trust social media sites. Social media sites are thought to be more honest and transparent… and using them well can help increase a nonprofit’s perceived trustworthiness.


Millennials are not the only demographic using social media. Not by a long shot. But Generation Y came of age when social media was the cool, new thing. It is integrated into our daily lives. Most of us do not keep on top of happenings in the social technology realm because we are paid to be in-the-know on such topics. On the contrary, we do it because it is how we connect with our friends and how we understand the world.

Use us to help your organization spread its social mission.

Here’s a link to the quiz from Pew Research (How Millennial are you?) that John Racanelli mentions. And if you want to read a bit more on the role of Millennials in the workplace, check out an article that I was asked to write this Summer for Museum Magazine.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Millennials, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 5 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

5 Responses to Millennials and Social Media: Why Nonprofits Need Them to Survive

  1. Tess

    As a Millennial myself (who DOESN’T make her living working with and advocating social media), I find it easy to get bogged down by the daily interactions with social media, which often reflect the pervasive self-obsessed (or, to use a word I know Colleen loves, solipsistic) nature of the phase of life we Millennials are now experiencing. So I find it refreshing to read a post that frames this aspect of our culture in a positive, even beneficial light. It’s especially exciting to hear a CEO (not a Millennial, if I may say so) of an institution such as the National Aquarium speak of this culture in the same hopeful light. I do hope our generation is able to tap into the potential both Colleen and Mr. Racanelli see in our inherent interconnectedness — not just in the context of ZAMs but also in other collaborative fields such as science, technology, and resource management.

    As a side note, I will say that I don’t observe this kind of generational awareness in other, non-outreach-centric fields, beyond the obligatory “sorry for bequeathing to you the burden of cleaning up our mess.” I think it’s something other fields and industries can and should learn from ZAMs.

  2. Caroline Hendrix

    For any nonprofit administrator who thinks people DON’T pay attention to their organization’s social media updates, I give you this Gchat conversation that I had just the other day with my old roommate as a case study in how people our age relate to organizations.

    Stephanie: i think NYCB is genius at social networking, etc
    there’s nothing that they post on facebook that i don’t devour

    She’s referencing New York City Ballet… they’d just posted behind-the-scenes shots from their new marketing campaign, which aims to humanize and highlight their corps of dancers by shooting really gorgeous portraits of them. The ads run in NYC magazines, on the subway, etc. I immediately went onto Facebook and checked the photos out. I think this demonstrates a few different things:

    1) Word of mouth is essential, and so is placement on social media. I probably never would have looked at those photos, or thought about NYCB, unless the recommendation came from my best friend. But because she brought it to my attention, I looked right away. When any of my friends promote their projects on Facebook, I always create a new tab so I can check it out later. Also, formats like Facebook are the ONLY place where your organizational message exist alongside an individual’s personal communication without barriers, unlike in an email inbox where people can consciously choose to delete your email but not their friend’s. Sure, you can “hide” certain things on Facebook, but I don’t know many people who do that, so most of the time, if people are paying attention, your message will probably register at least a little bit. Social media is the easiest, most accessible way to promote and share things, so why wouldn’t you make sure you’re there?

    2) Our generation is hyper-aware of the existence of marketing and advertising, but somehow, acknowledging head-on that you’re doing that can really endear audiences to you. Like with these pictures… the album is clearly marked “marketing campaign” but because the photos are behind-the-scenes and give us a glimpse into what we don’t normally see, it’s like we’re being marketed to without actually being marketed to. Which is kind of genius. Speaking of, I think it’s really important for the organization to develop a voice that is personal, casual and humorous so that the organization becomes like a friend and not a company.

    3) Social media enforces more traditional advertising. These ads have been running for 2 years. I always flip past them. Now I’m going to stop on them.

    4) Ability to share is essential. Like a true Millennial, I saved the URL of the Facebook post in a Google Doc and plan to later share them on Tumblr. Couldn’t do that with the actual ads. 🙂

    Maybe I’m an exception because I am on Facebook all day every day, but seriously, we do pay attention!

    • colleendilen

      Hi Caroline. Thanks for your awesome comment. There’s a lot of thought-food here. I wanted to let this go for a while and see if anyone wanted to weigh in on your comment, but I’m out of self-control here. 🙂

      I agree with all four of your points. WOM is indeed essential as is engagement on social media. As for your second point regarding NYCB labeling their album “marketing campaign,” I think this is smart and transparent in just the right way. On social media, it’s important to come clean and it boils back down to trust. Trust your audience and they’ll trust you right back (most of the time). It’s the folks who keep things secret that flounder and have a hard time gaining trust from Generation Y. I agree that tone is critical. Facebook is a platform for “friends,” so organizations need to be those… and good friends trust and respond.

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  4. Vincent Oparah

    It was very interesting articles and one can deduce that there are two categories of groups in the use of social media. While the old generation is more conservative in what they put on social media, the young generation are quick to put information out, without thinking it through. In this light, they young generation usually get into trouble through the use of social media.

    While socail media is good and can be used to circulate information to target audience, it is pertinent to note that there are still millions of people who do not have access to internet and mobile phones. Other means of communication must be exhausted.


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