6 Sad Truths About Fundraising That I Have Learned as a Millennial Donor


Hi, nonprofit executive leaders and board members. My name is Colleen Dilenschneider. I am a Millennial donor and I exist.


And data suggest that I’m not alone in being a millennial donor, either.

First, let’s be honest: I’m not a crazy-huge donor that is going to make-or-break your nonprofit operations (yet…). That said, I’ve made a personal decision to prioritize charitable giving as I’ve grown in my career by making several four and five-figure gifts (And more to an organization in which I serve on the Board.)  I intend to be a lifelong giver to philanthropic causes. Hey, I’m a millennial – realistic or not, I’m optimistic about my financial future. And, no, not a single penny of that came from my parents (who data suggest aren’t as long-term financially supportive as we millennials may think they are). Like my peers, I am public-service motivated and I care about making a difference.

I learned an awful lot about nonprofit solvency through the pursuit of my Master of Public Administration in Nonprofit Management degree, but one thing’s for sure: I’ve learned a LOT more about fundraising as a donor than I ever could have dreamed of learning while studying fundraising.

Millennials – those roughly between the ages of 21 and 35 – represent the single largest generation in human history. Come 2015, Millennials will have more buying power than Baby Boomers, and then this massive demographic will have a stronghold on the market for the following forty years at minimum. Thanks in large part to the web and social media connectivity, we function and think very differently than the generations that came before us. Nonprofit organizations that are not targeting this population right now in terms of building affinity and creating personal connections may find themselves suddenly irrelevant within the next decade.

Here are six sad truths that I’ve uncovered about the realities of nonprofit fundraising as a millennial donor:


1) Nobody thinks you can give any money so nobody asks you

I’m not complaining about this one as a donor, but I absolutely want to call attention to it as a person working to strengthen the nonprofit sector. Aside from our colleges and universities (efficacy of their methods aside), not many organizations are earnestly prioritizing folks under 35 as donors or even cultivating the relationships required to secure future gifts from millennials. Yes, a great number of millennials are in debt and our unemployment rates are high, but there are nearly 90 million of us, and common sense should tell organizations that out of a population so large, surely some of us are capable of supporting those organizations that we care about.  More simply put, donors are generally the exception and not the rule for many organizations, so why do organizations tend to focus on the “average millennial” as a rationale to not actively cultivate their support when they apply an entirely different standard to every other donor segment?


2) Nobody likes a millennial donor

This one has been my single biggest detour in making donations. When you’re a millennial donor, two very important types of people directly associated with the organization really, really dislike you…and don’t hide it even a little bit:

Board members don’t like millennial donors: In at least two cases, I’ve made donations similar to or larger than those made by over half of the board members of some notable organizations (and I’ll remind you that I’m no multi-millionaire). Though I thought about neither board at the time of my giving (and didn’t intend to do anything but give), it became very clear through consequent communications with the organizations’ CEOs and my own connections to specific board members that…well, if I was hit by a bus, there might be a select group of “public-service motivated” Baby Boomers that wouldn’t mind.

This hurt at first, but I get it. My giving as a non-board member (let alone someone their children’s age) makes them accountable for their own “age and stature-appropriate philanthropy” and forces them to honor their implicit obligations to get or give meaningful funds. Or, more directly, it makes them look bad – especially because board members of mid-to-large sized nonprofit organizations (“status boards”) often try to keep young folks out of sight for other reasons. We millennials are indeed innately threatening in many ways (sheer size and our different methods of connecting with other generations and the world around us, etc). But when a new generation knocks on the door and enters society’s living room, there is no ignoring the new tenants. After decades of simply talking about it, older generations begin to suddenly understand that they may need to fit more, different people on the couch at some point. And they get mad. It is not easy to fire yourself for your own underperformance. That couch is pretty comfy.

Millennial fundraising and major gift officers don’t like millennial donors: While one could argue that millennial giving is good for nonprofit organization board members because the associated dislike is simply a symptom of necessary evolution, they aren’t always the biggest barriers to giving…sometimes those are millennial fundraisers and major gift officers.

We millennials are a connected and “equal” bunch. On our soccer teams growing up, everyone was a MVP (watch this and laugh…or cry). We are also very socially connected and generally care about being liked by our peers. When a CEO asks a millennial fundraiser to “court” another millennial, the interaction that ensues is usually NOT what the executive leader probably envisioned. In one-on-one conversations, our colloquial millennial nature takes the conversation very quickly off of the “let’s talk about how you can help the organization and/or strengthen your connection with us” track to a “prove yourself” narrow-eyed inquisition of what I’ve done with my life to be sitting there. (I simply prioritize giving!) My sample size is disturbingly high in encountering this situation and it seems to be more rule than exception.  Once I even received a very direct and condescending, “So tell me why our CEO asked me to speak with you today.”

In the history of the planet, I’m pretty sure that nobody has ever talked down their own achievements and apologized for their “available funds” faster than a millennial donor in front of an unnecessarily-personally-threatened millennial fundraiser. I nearly always walk away feeling like an awful traitor to my generation.

That said, I have also had fun and valuable conversations with a select few millennial major gift officers who have themselves strengthened my relationship with an organization. One thing that may be the difference? The millennial fundraisers who have made me feel good about potential giving seem to be the ones that feel good about themselves and understand the value of their skillset. I know firsthand that these specific individuals have access to their CEOs and executive leadership, and that leadership looks to them as experts in fundraising. Bottom line: value millennial employees and you’ll have a better chance of attracting millennial donors. (I cannot stress this point enough. Also, to be honest, a vast majority of millennial fundraisers that I’ve encountered seem to unfortunately fall into the first category – not the second – so please don’t write this off.)


3) You will probably be asked for large funds via snail mail

My first ask for a five-figure gift was delivered to me via snail mail. For years, I’d been looking forward to the moment when I’d be seriously courted by an organization (nerd alert), and this was my very first little donor heartbreak. The broader market increasingly mistrusts direct mail and its overall efficacy as a communication method. It should come as no surprise that this decline is far more drastic for millennials and younger generations. To be blunt, older folks: what we millennials receive in the mail is mostly bills. When millennials give, they are looking for an emotional connection and to be a part of something. We aren’t emotionally connected with a high level of affinity to our bills. A thoughtful, hand-written thank you after making a donation? Well, that’s a personal touch and a completely different story.


4) Even though you could not possibly be more findable on the web and giving money feels very personal, the person who asks for support will know NOTHING about you

Even though details like what you ate for dinner last night may be all over your social networks, the person who asks you for money and the person who thanks you (if you get a personal thanks aside from your form letter for tax purposes – even with bigger gifts it doesn’t always happen) will know NOTHING about you. Amazingly, many haven’t even taken the time to figure out where you live or what you do for a living.

Here’s just one example in my collection: A coordinator for an organization that I believe in contacted me to ask for support from IMPACTS (where I work) on a project that I think is particularly valuable for the nonprofit sector. She sent us a general proposal for funds that was obviously not intended for a company like IMPACTS. When I asked her to please write out a less boilerplate request (read: something actually contemplative of anything about the company and its giving priorities) so that I could in turn recommend a gift to our founder, she sent me another generic letter that still did not acknowledge the company, our potential “fit” with the project, or even my own work as an employee within IMPACTS (which related to the project). I was then reminded several times of the upcoming “deadline to give.” When I explained both my passion for the project and my disappointment with the generic, thoughtless asks, my company CEO said, “Let’s wait and see if they notice our silence now. If they mention anything specific to us at all, we’ll give them $25,000 on the spot.” Needless to say, it never happened.


5) Pick only one: Giving online (convenience) or receiving any real acknowledgement of your gift (dignity)

Online giving (an option that nonprofit leaders often seem to think they’ve taken their time and energy to do just for us) is another big no-win for larger-scale millennial donors. If you give online, you get an automated email of thanks and rarely receive a more personal follow-up – if you receive a follow-up from a real human being all – which can be even more heartbreaking than the automated response (see item #4). This is true even if you make a five-figure gift online (true story, folks). It seems that because you’re not handing a check directly to a human being who feels responsible for saying thank you, you generally won’t get one.

But to digital natives, this “worthy/unworthy of attention” differentiation doesn’t exist between giving methods – except that giving online tends to work best for us. Millennials believe that technology makes life easier (a win for online giving), but that it also makes things more real-time and personal (a lose for online giving follow-through in most situations). Thus, the way that online giving is currently carried out simply doesn’t adequately suit our needs (or arguably, anyone’s). Providing online giving mechanisms may be seen by millennials as a way to provide real-time thanks and connect on multiple platforms to retain donors long term…not as an automated system to remove the responsibility of human touch from the giving equation.

It’s a textbook example of pandering to out-dated legacy systems. Traditional fundraising mechanisms have been around for years, but organizations seem to treat the web as an “add-on” to a broken system, rather than letting market behaviors drive the development of something that should already exist. Even our most national nonprofit organizations take a “Blockbuster Video” approach, fearing evolution so severely that they resist anything but baby-step adaptation until they are nothing but a memory.


6) You will be courted lovingly until they get into your pants (pocket), but then you are just a booty call.

As I mentioned before, millennials want to feel like they are a part of something and making a difference. Smart organizations do a great job of letting you know how your funds will help move their missions forward, and it’s truly exciting to hear the statistics and feel like you have the opportunity to help! However, my experienced truth is that after you make a donation, there’s a good chance that you won’t soon again feel this involved.

Unless I work directly with the organization, I tend to be “forgotten” after I give…until it’s time to raise more money. As a donor, I understand the statistics about low donor retention rates.  As a millennial, I also have expectations (that are rarely realized) after I make a donation that the organization knows who I am and recognizes when I amplify their messages on social media channels. (Most don’t. Fundraising and marketing are very similar departments but they don’t often seem to communicate regarding donors). I’m a donor and proven evangelist after I give, and it seems that several organizations miss that I (and my peers) are good targets for encouraging other donations.

I am fiercely proud of the organizations that I’ve chosen to support financially, and I hope to support them well into the future. I don’t think I’m abnormal. There are a whole lot of millennials out there and we want to make a difference. I hope for the sake of the nonprofit organizations that I love and those that my peers and I may come to love in the future, that they start speaking the same language as their evolving audiences. And that they do it fast. At some point in the rapidly-approaching future, a majority of nonprofit donors will have to be millennials, or the organizations that we love simply won’t exist. 


*Photo credit belongs to philanthopicintelligence.net

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Fundraising, Millennials, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 24 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

24 Responses to 6 Sad Truths About Fundraising That I Have Learned as a Millennial Donor

  1. Chris Loynd

    Eye opener. I’m in Marketing and will now reach out to Development to better integrate. It truly is a new way of thinking, isn’t it?

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for commenting, Chris. Indeed, it does seem to be a new way of thinking that nonprofits are facing (and fast)! I hope that these thoughts/experiences may be somewhat helpful in your integration process.

  2. Leigh-Anne

    I unquestionably agree with what you wrote. I ask that you also keep in mind that we Gen Xers have felt the sting of Baby Boomer ignorance our whole lives. The digital divide did not happen between our generations. Rather, it is a distinct line, drawn through mine, that pushed half to mirror them, and the other half to be known as slackers due to our acceptance of modern technologies. As tough as it is, we just need patience.

  3. Dwight Turner

    I think the major factors that create your frustration are partly about being a donor in general and not very different despite your age. Orgs that have the resources to engage donors are few, and fewer are those are good at it (you may want to cite a few you like, so as not to fit into the whinny, deserving millennial stereotype. If there are no nonprofits then cite a private sector example). The other big killer is that millennials are incredibly diverse, but expect in depth, long tailed engagement that unfortunately hasn’t been proven as a source of a wealth of funding. I believe many orgs when faced with the unknown (both in terms of behavior and the cost of engagement) default to the demographics they know best. As a sizable donor in your age group you are the best testament of this, turn to some of your friends and people of similar ge outside your peer group and do a survey. Then think of the challenge this data presents to a nonprofit fundraiser.

  4. John Racanelli

    Way to say it like you see it, CD!

  5. Robin

    As a millenial donor who also happens to be a millenial fundraiser who works with millenials (do I get extra points for using millenial three times in one sentence), can I get an AMEN?! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Millenials take a lot of extra care (yes, extra because though we too are human beings and adults we are also different), but in the long run make a big difference. The staff resources necessary to effectively work with millenials is huge and when board members are focused on immediate ROI and think of fundraising as selling widgets rather than inspiring real change, it’s really difficult to successfully engage and meaningfully solicit young professionals.

    Would love to talk more about this. Thanks for your insights.

    • colleendilen

      Robin, AMEN! 🙂 Not to mention, you make a very excellent point about the leadership thought processes that may necessarily hinder greater millennial giving. Thanks for including these thoughts here.

      Love to chat. My social media contacts are on my header. Pick your poison and I’m happy to talk shop!

  6. Nazima Ali


    What a fantastic post! Points I’ve made to organizations I’ve worked with in the past and had a hard time getting them to acknowledge it.



  7. Deborah

    I’m not a millennial, but what you are saying applies to many other generations as well. Two of the charities I donate to (Street Kids International and Canadian Feed the Children) have held a donor event here in Ottawa in the past several years, and I received personal invitations to attend from both. I have to say that after those events I was more committed to those two charities than before, and if I ever had to reduce my charitable giving, those two would be the last I’d give up. The events not only gave us personal testimony by field workers on the difference that had been made to the lives of individuals, but we had a chance to ask questions and get answers. It becomes personal at that point, and the commitment is real.

  8. Jeff De Cagna

    Really interesting post Colleen. I am the board chair of a small national non-profit organization, and I am Gen X. Beyond what’s in your post, what advice can you offer about how our board and staff can do a better job of building lasting relationships with Millennial donors? I look forward to your thoughts.

  9. Carol Ummel Lindquist Olson

    Dear Colleen:
    I am a baby boomer on the board of a women’s collective giving organization, Impact Giving, (ImpactGivingnow.org). I found your organizations website really interesting, especially the statistics. I was amused by the similarities in our organizations’ names.
    We are looking for more younger women to join our organization and I found your comments extremely helpful! We would love to have you or someone like you in our organization and be very grateful.
    Thank you so very much.

  10. Amy

    I’m not yet in the position to be a donor of any influence, but I’ve been involved in several nonprofits for fundraising pushes as well as discussions on how to develop millennial audiences/subscribers. The conversations surrounding both have always seemed off the mark, and when I’ve voiced concerns, I get a lot of push back from anyone more than a few years older than me (I’m 30). Your insight is helpful, and it’s inspired me to think more about the subject and the best ways to change the current mindset at my organization.
    (As a note, most of my donations are in the $20-$50 range, and whenever I get a glossy mailing, I am upset by the idea that the cost of producing, printing, and sending that mailing probably negates my earlier donation. I know many of my friends feel the same way.)

  11. Melissa

    Good points but why do we always need to make this a generational thing? It could be that you are a woman. It could be that you are assertive. It could be a number of different factors. Perhaps it is the right of every generation to see those who have come before them as hopeless, out of touch, and stuck in outmoded ways of communication. But where does it leave us. There is another generation coming down the pike who will look at you just as dismissively. Can’t we just talk about plain old “good communication skills.” Do you really care if you are asked in a letter or by email as long as the request is heartfelt, meaningful, and as personal as it can be? I can’t believe the delivery system is so important. What you are describing are individuals being rude, callous, or clueless and that behavior comes in all shapes and sizes.

  12. Mary Lane

    “Traditional fundraising mechanisms have been around for years, but organizations seem to treat the web as an “add-on” to a broken system, rather than letting market behaviors drive the development of something that should already exist. Even our most national nonprofit organizations take a “Blockbuster Video” approach, fearing evolution so severely that they resist anything but baby-step adaptation until they are nothing but a memory.”

    As an older (sigh) person working for a nonprofit who is integrating the various giving platforms, I would be interested in hearing examples of the evolution you refer to above. We would love to incorporate new approaches that might fit better with all of the new communication technologies.

  13. Brian Kane

    Colleen, sadly your experience mirrors donors of any age, though being a millennial adds its own particular nuance. Nextgendonors.org recently released a report that suggests millennials support addressing root causes of problems and giving where there will be a significant impact.

    Importantly, you give a substantial amount to nonprofits! If I were still running a nonprofit, I would be thrilled to have someone of your commitment and caliber giving to my organization.

    As you know, giving is not one-sided. As a donor, you can insist on being treated with respect. There are organizations which approach fundraising with the understanding that its about building a relationship and demonstrating your investment has impact.

    I’m interested to hear how your experience changes your giving or your relationship with the nonprofits who have received gifts from you.

  14. Dale Knoop

    Great post. What you list is what drove us to create RAZ Mobile. Too many nonprofits underestimate the need to engage millennials and sadly many will perish due to board decisions on how important this generation will be (very, very soon) and where they live-their mobile phones.

    I have been told texting is a fad and that QR codes are ugly. And I have heard millennials don’t give and that we’re fine with our “60 year-old, old guy” donors. Millennials are the future big donors and we’re doing our best to help nonprofits survive and thrive in our very mobile-centric world.

    All 4 people in the image were on their phone.

  15. Janice

    One thing that I think smaller organizations do well is connect with their donors. In spite of the lack of staff, lack of time, sometimes lack of systems, major donors to smaller organizations are treated well and not forgotten. Donors should consider this as well as the major impact that a 5 figure gift can make in a smaller organization.

  16. Cynder

    Thanks for your insightful comments, Colleen. I had a thought while reading your post. Since its clear that there is a gap in expectations and communication between org development/board folks and millennial donors, how about if you did a little experiment. Choose an org you really believe in and offer to “consult” with their development staff and/or board to create a beta test for the best approach to soliciting and engaging with millennials. If that doesn’t work, keep looking until you find an org that is responsive. Then see what happens. You could really create an important contribution to the world of nonprofit fundraising if you’re successful!

    • Dale Knoop

      Our success story using millennial style tactics with ArtsKC as evidenced by their story told on the Social IRL blog shows that tactics and behaviors once thought to be the realm of millennials happened to work quite well with boomers. ROI over 1000% and a 10% bump in giving to one of their campaigns.

  17. Rebecca Ryan

    I really appreciate and understand what you’re saying on this post. I am not trying to be completely random, but I do know of a cause that you could support that would have nothing but severe and gracious appreciation for your help.

    I’m currently signed up as a Shavee trying to raise money for St. Baldrick’s Foundation for Children’s Cancer Research. I have pledged to shave my head on September 14th to show my support and solidarity for those children who lose their hair while fighting for their lives. You don’t have to donate directly to my fundraising page (though I’d obviously appreciate it), but you can donate right to the foundation and help so many with a wonderful cause.

    I invite you to look up the foundation or look at my participant page, and I know that if you’re looking to help make a difference in the world – this is a major way to do it. And it’s one that doesn’t judge whether you’re a millenial like me or not.

    Hoping you’re having a wonderful week and enjoy the wonderful optimism that is apparently the greatest strength of our generation.

    Best of luck to you in all of your future donations and endeavors,

    Becca Ryan

  18. Alex Kuhlow

    I appreciate your insights into how the Millennial generation is wired! Would love to get a Millennial onto our Board of Directors and will start that search now. We are a non-traditional non-profit organization in that we don’t actively seek donations but rather look for those who either need to raise funds and have a desire to prevent child exploitation by selling the products made by families at risk. And it is the Millennial’s that seem most passionate about the work we are doing! Thanks again for helping us older folks understand you a little better! God bless you!
    Alex Kuhlow
    CEO Threads of Hope Inc.

  19. Jenelle Taylor

    I’ve been a fundraising auctioneer for 13 years, and I teach others across the country how to work better with nonprofits. This is without question the clearest, most instructive article on strategy I’ve seen in at least a year.
    Your voice is greatly needed!

  20. Julie Larson

    I have 3 millennial children and am sharing this with them as well as everyone I know… what an amazing resource you are creating Colleen! Heartfelt gratitude for doing what you are doing to be a difference maker.

  21. Pamela Ward

    Really terrific post regarding development/fundraising to any group. I have no idea which generational group that I belong to, but as a managing director of a small not for profit, and a career-long NFP professional, #6 absolutely NAILED the problem with most fundraising that I have seen, and the metaphor is perfect.


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