Purpose: The Key to Engaging Millennials in Volunteering and Giving

Mark Horoszowski

Mark Horoszowski is the co-founder and CEO of MovingWorlds.org.

Students protesting against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline chant slogans in front of the White House in Washington,DC on March 2, 2014. tudents from around the country gathered to oppose the tar sands oil pipeline from Canada, which they say is dangerous for the environment. US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to announce in the coming months whether the proposed $5.4 billion oil pipeline serves the national interest and will be constructed following years of confrontation between environmentalists and the oil industry. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Millennials are known as being more environmentally and socially conscious than the older generations. So it always comes as a surprise to nonprofit, corporate, and governmental leaders when they see that millennials no longer in school do not give or volunteer as much as the other generations.

But it’s not that millennials give less, it’s that they give differently. Not always more effectively, but more integrated with their lives. Research from PEW Research does a great job of showing some of the contrasts of this generation.

As an example, while a Baby Boomer might donate money to an environmental charity, a millennial will donate less to charity but spend more on groceries to purchase sustainably sourced products. While a Boomer might donate more of their possessions to a philanthropy fighting poverty, a millennial is more likely to purchase products that offer a one-for-one model. One isn’t necessary better than the other, and measuring the efficacy of both strategies is rather challenging, but there are merits and risks to both. According to research published in The Washington Post:

While previous generations may have been motivated to volunteer or donate by their companies, millennials are much more likely to be influenced by their peers than by their supervisors, 65 percent to 44 percent. And only 11 percent had their donation deducted from their paycheck, a method that for older generations was often considered the standard way to give at the office.

The key lesson here is that while older generations tend to see philanthropic, personal, and professional lives as different, millennials see them as integrated and strive to do less harm while also trying to do more good. While a Boomer might criticize a Millennial for not giving enough to charity, a Millennial might criticize the Boomer for working at a company that perpetuates unethical systems. According to Derrick Feldmann, President of the consulting firm Achieve that performed the survey for Case Foundation’s Report, “We’ve learned in this year’s survey that millennials don’t check their interest in causes at the door, they bring these passions to work.

Simply put, millennials want to balance social good in their everyday activities. However, they are challenged to do so because, from a life stage perspective, they are also striving to set their career paths on the right trajectory and also facing major consumerism challenges, like purchasing homes and starting families.

It’s this confluence of trends and aspirations that millennials might be seen as more selfish, but in reality, they are just looking for opportunities to align their giving activities with their life goals. So if you’re looking to boost millennial involvement, here are tips to create giving and volunteer opportunities that engage millennials:

Purposeful Giving


Millennials are more likely to give money when their social or professional connections compel them to do so, more-so than out of the goodness of their own heart. I’m a living example of this. My parents donate larger dollar amounts to a select few charities he and my mom have vetted and feel most connected to; and I never hear them talk publically about this. Meanwhile, my wife and l donate to many of my friend’s causes via online donation tools by giving more, smaller donations to our friends and colleagues.

Think about it… in a corporate environment, if your skip level asked you to make a donation, do you think you’d give more or less than if an employee two levels underneath you asked for a donation? Research from the Case Foundation’s Millennial Impact Report shows that 47% of millions have donate to a giving campaign promoted by their employer. Millennials aren’t selfish or focused on playing politics, but they do try to marry their personal and professional lives, and they donate in ways that help the world while helping them achieve their own aspirations. The same Report shows that 87% had donated money toward a nonprofit last year, with the majority of gift sizes being greater than $100.

Millennials also want to know that their gift is making a real impact. About half of millennials are most likely to give then they know how their gift will impact an organization’s work. If you want to increase donations from this audience, you should:

  1. Create group giving opportunities, online AND in-person (46% of Millennial employees are likely to donate if a co-worker asks them to)
  2. Engage employers as part of the experience (27% of Millennial employees said they are more likely to donate to a cause if their supervisor does)
  3. Offer incentives that align with aspirations, focusing on promoting the person and their contributions, rather than trinkets or thank you cards (43% of Millennials said they would be more likely to give if a competition was involved)
  4. Clearly show how the money will make an impact using vivid pictures and stories

Purposeful Volunteering


Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that people age 20 to 24 are the least likely to volunteer. The age group above them isn’t much better. However, the Millennial Impact Report shared that “77% of millennials said they’re more likely to volunteer when they can use their specific skills or expertise to benefit a cause.” The same number of people “preferred to perform cause work with groups of fellow employees as opposed to doing independent service projects“.

Similar to the way they give money, millennials do volunteer when it integrates with their whole life and their aspiration. A few reasons that millennials are more likely to volunteer include things like enriching their personal life by meeting new friends, finding a romantic partner, or finding interesting activities. Millennials are also drawn into opportunities to aid their career trajectory by diversifying their experiences, practice new skills, and building their professional network.

The career focus is especially strong in this audience: 50% of millennials have volunteered their time for a company-sponsored initiative. In fact, the same report shows that 56% are more likely to volunteer if they receive some kind of incentive and 65% were more likely to volunteer if their co-workers participated. 

If you are looking to engage millennials in more volunteer activities, work on the following:

  1. Find real, skills-based projects that make a demonstrable impact, like Experteering
  2. Create a group-like experience (even if the work is individual in nature, put people in a cohort or networking group)
  3. Increase exposure to corporate and nonprofits leaders that can help the volunteer build their network
  4. Design transformational experiences that highlight how the work makes a real impact
  5. Integrate volunteering as a part of a person’s job and growth opportunities (research shows volunteering is a powerful leadership development tool)


In Summary

Purpose is empowering. Just as millennials are seeking to find purpose in their career, they look to find purpose in their giving activities, too. First, we must realize that philanthropic engagement is evolving generation to generation, and even within generations. Second, we need to remember that, regardless of generation, millennials are people. Individually, each is looking to belong to a social network, feel loved, and know that they are making an impact. Helping them find ways to do so is as easy as connecting them to realize the global AND personal purpose of their giving and volunteering actions.