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The Quest for Younger Donors: Holy Grail or Tilting at Windmills?

April 30, 2013
By Tom Harrison

Is your CEO concerned that your donor base is aging? Is your board pressing you to target younger donors? Are your younger staff bemoaning the fact that your marketing materials aren’t relevant anymore?

They’re all wrong.

When I entered the direct response fundraising world in 1985, everyone was terrified that donor files were aging and that the younger folks, dubbed “baby boomers,” were not giving. What would we do?

Russ Reid, the founder of the firm that still bears his name, smiled and said, “Stop worrying; they’ll give when they turn 45.”

Sure enough, as they crossed the magic threshold, baby boomers have, indeed, become a most generous cohort and have fueled (and will continue to fuel) philanthropy for years.

Now that senior baby boomers are turning 65, some nonprofits are again frantic that their baby-boomer rich donor files are aging and that young people aren’t giving. Some are even investing big bucks in trying to get 20-40 year olds to give. And when it fails, they claim, in their most sincere revisionist tones, that the objective was really to engage and begin to build a relationship with these donors of the future. Puh-lease!

Your staff are likely far younger than your donors. My friend, Bernard Ross, often begins his brilliant sessions with nonprofit organizations by having people write five words on a piece of paper and keep it in front of them. The words? “I Am Not The Audience.” Your staff’s choice of media, design, messages, spokespeople, music and donating behavior is NOT the same as that of your donors.

We’ve all heard the argument that we need to target 20-40 year olds because we’ll have them on the file that much longer. Or because they’ll be more likely to give to us when they’re more ready and able to give.

I don’t buy it. In the first place, it’s cost-prohibitive from an ROI perspective to acquire 20-40 year olds as donors, and while the second argument is tempting, there is no proof I’ve ever seen that engaging the youngsters makes them more likely to recall and support that same organization when they do become donors.

Donor files are always aging. As they do, new generations take their place.

Simply put, we need to stop targeting people whom we wish would give, and target people who do give. Would McDonalds spend money targeting vegetarians because it is an under-represented audience in their stores? Want to know who really gives? Read James Wilson’s book, Who Really Cares. It’s an eye-opener.

Two questions to clarify the quest to find the elusive younger donors:
  1. What is the most important indicator of whether someone will give to a direct response appeal?
    Answer: whether they’ve given before. To any appeal. Or, better still, to you. People in their 20s and 30s likely haven’t.
  2. What is the second most important indicator of whether someone will give to a direct response appeal?
    Answer: Age. It’s a better predictor than household income, ethnicity, education levels or religion.
The accompanying chart from The Heart of the Donor Study confirms what we all should know from experience: Older donors give more, and are more generous and far more valuable to nonprofits than younger donors.

Donor age graph

What does this mean to you?

Rejoice in your older donors. Cultivate them well.

Invest in a strong planned giving program. Don’t leave it to chance. Take half of the next bequest you get and fund a couple years of planned giving work. It’ll be the best long-term ROI you’ll see.

Choose your media channels wisely. If your best donors are 55+ (they are), make sure you communicate with them via their preferred channels, not your staff’s preferred channels.

Don’t swing before the pitch. Don’t waste direct response fundraising budgets on 20-40 year olds until they enter the age group of donors. But do get them involved! They make a terrific volunteer base, they’re inexpensive to reach and engage through social media, and they can turbo-charge your advocacy programs.

OK, I take it back. Finally, remember when I said folks were wrong to try to get younger people to give? I was just getting your attention. It really depends on how you define “younger.” The Seniors and Boomers will continue to be provide the lion’s share of nonprofit donations in the decade to come. That’s where you should focus the lion’s share of your fundraising budget. But if the average age of your donor file is 65 or even 70+, you should be working to acquire “younger” donors: people in their late 40s and 50s.

by Tom Harrison, CEO of Russ Reid

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