Engaging Millenials

 This article originally appeared in the December issue of Monthly Developments Magazine. You can see the online version here. It also appeared on iirrblog.com.

We arrived at the grassy field right as the Black Keys were set to hit the stage for the Global Poverty Project’s Global Citizen Festival, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I had won tickets to the concert, one of my favorite bands was playing and it was a splendid fall evening. Plus, I was there to fight global poverty!

I never expected to win free tickets to the concert just by watching videos, reading articles and sharing the information online. And considering my life’s mission is to tackle poverty, I was excited that thousands of people were also taking action.

So when the Black Keys finished their set and we were watching presentations and videos from organizations and people fighting poverty, I was surprised to realize that I was mostly wrong about the thousands in attendance. Jeffrey Sachs, famed economist and special advisor to the UN Secretary-General, took the stage and the people around where astonishingly uninterested.

“Boooo! Get off the stage! No one cares,” they said. “We just want to see the Foo Fighters!”

I was shocked, sad and annoyed. Why didn’t people care? This is POVERTY we’re talking about! This was our chance to do something big and make a lasting impact on the elimination of global poverty.

I left the concert excited about the music, but also thinking that our generation was just not the “Woodstock” type that camps out for a few days in honor of peace and love. We were the generation that put Kony 2012 on the map, after all. So why didn’t people care now?

As a part of the Millennial Generation—people currently in their teens and 20s—it is frustrating that many adults see us as self-centered know-it-alls that are constantly glued to our smart phones. I usually try to defend us, but at the concert I began to understand the stereotype.

I originally intended to write about how Millennials were not the right group for sweeping declarations about things like ending world poverty, because I was focused on the image of my generation as a group who don’t want to do anything that doesn’t benefit them directly. But then I realized what I should have seen from the start: Millennials like a challenge. They want to be involved, not simply show up. Countless articles and studies have been written on how to engage Millennials, but few hit the nail on the head like The Millennial Impact Report. The 35-page report essentially advocates for one thing: “Stop trying to figure out Millennials and just include them.”

What the Global Citizen Festival didn’t do was include Millennials in the personal way we want to be included. That would have been virtually impossible, of course, when dealing with a crowd of 60,000 people, most of whom got free tickets to the concert. I’m not saying that the concert didn’t raise at least some awareness; it just wasn’t the platform for engaging thousands of 20-somethings.

Millennials like to be social, personally engaged and more involved than simply giving money. We give to and work with nonprofits because we feel personally connected to their causes—from curing cancer to saving puppies to fostering our political voice. It’s not just because we feel the need to donate money.

Seventy-seven percent of Millennials have smart phones, 67 percent of us engage with nonprofits on Facebook, and the overwhelming majority of us prefer short-term volunteering opportunities. And with money being tight, 75 percent of Millennials want to know how their donation will make an impact. So instead of going to a huge concert to end global poverty, a smaller, more involved event (where it is actually possible to really engage and feel personally involved) will have a greater impact.

I identify with these statistics. I want to know what a nonprofit is doing, how they’re doing it and where my dollars will go. I work for a nonprofit, so that information is readily available to me. But to most of my friends it is not. When asked, one friend said she identifies more with health-related nonprofits because she works at a hospital so she can see exactly what happens when she donates to a pediatric or cancer-focused charity. When focusing outside her profession, her connection changes because, “The resources for nonprofits aren't as available to me unless I am looking for them.” She wants to be able to find key information about an organization right away and not have to dig through layers and layers of websites or Facebook postings to understand what it is doing. With a bevy of information coming in our direction, it is hard to sift through what is important and what is not. In a busy Millennial’s life, there isn't time to find out what every nonprofit does, so make that information front-and-center and easily accessible. Nonprofits should work to connect directly with Millennials so there is a more tangible impact of a donation. Does your charity fight cancer? Then tell me the story of a particular person who benefited from the research that donations supported. Are you working to end global poverty? Then tell me if my donation will go towards an entrepreneur or a school for girls or an agriculture project. I want to know what is going on, and I want to be able to share that story. Millennials and vagueness don’t seem to mix. And as another friend pointed out, “I think it’s a bit of a turnoff when an organization seems to have no clear goals, [and works] just to ‘engage in education/immigration/women’s issues.’”

What does this mean for nonprofits struggling to involve this large new group of donors? Always make it personal. I want to hear your story and I want to be involved in other ways than through my checkbook. Don’t try to teach me what I might already know. Instead, involve me in the process of your work through board meetings, volunteering, fun events or working with you in the field. Make me feel the good you are doing.Give us the chance to lend our tech, social,smart phone, on-the-go skills in a more personal manner, and I promise we won’t let you down