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Imagine Canada

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The Next Generation of Philanthropy

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Where are the giving role models? It’s a question that has emerged through Imagine Canada’s Personal Philanthropy Project, an initiative researching the giving habits and motivations of affluent Canadians. In other words, how are young people learning about giving? There are whispers throughout the charitable and nonprofit sector that today’s youth are not interested in yesterday’s philanthropy. Young people are conceptualizing giving in different ways and challenging organizations to rethink how they talk about their work and appeal to donors. So what does this mean for organizations seeking to engage youth?

In this post we highlight research on youth giving trends and talk with Holly McLellan, International Director of Programming at the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative (YPI), an organization that engages young people in conversations about philanthropy and the important contributions charities make.

What do we know about giving among youth?

It’s widely accepted that charitable donations tend to increase with age. Yet younger donors do not appear to be replacing older donors. Young people are giving less to charity than previous generations. This can in part be explained by the financial barriers they face. For example, research by Generation Squeeze shows that government funding is disproportionately being spent on older generations, while younger generations are pressed by externalities such as high housing prices, high student debt, and low salaries. However, young people are also conceptualizing giving in different ways: they are supporting social good by volunteering, attending fundraising events, promoting and sharing causes online, and through initiatives that fall outside the realm of traditional charity.

There is growing evidence that young people are rejecting institutionalized forms of giving such as through charities and nonprofits. In The Networked Nonprofit Kanter & Fine describe how a combination of idealism and social media fluency makes Millennials passionate about causes, but not necessarily passionate about nonprofits and charities. They are less committed to institutions than previous generations, and while more likely to remain passionate about specific causes, they may jump from supporting one organization to another. Urbain et al. (2013) find that Generation Y (born 1979-1991) expresses itself through practices that resemble sharing rather than giving. The Millennial Impact Project also finds that Millennials (born 1980-2000) engage with and support causes, not institutions.

This might make it seem daunting to engage with young people, but it doesn’t have to be. Young people are most likely to donate to organizations that inspire them and engage their interests, which means that organizations have the opportunity to act as the conduits of causes. Holly McLellan from the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative (YPI) believes that young people identifying with causes rather than specific institutions is an encouraging opportunity. The ‘set it and forget it’ style of donating is a reliable and generous stream of funding, but there is a need for people to actively challenge the attitudes and behaviours that have allowed inequalities to deepen. Young people who are invested in your cause, but don’t yet have any money to spare, can interact with and advance your mission in ways that may actually be more strategic in the long-term.” Holly adds that everyone benefits from the charitable sector and depends on its vibrancy. Programs such as YPI introduce youth to the important services provided by community-based social service charities and allow them to develop personal experiences with the sector.

The Youth and Philanthropy Initiative (YPI)

The Youth and Philanthropy Project (YPI) engages high school students in conversations about philanthropy at a pivotal time when many are being asked to complete mandatory volunteer service hours. Holly describes the impact of YPI programing: “Each year tens of thousands of young people are developing empathy for vulnerable people, as well as an understanding of the vital impact a charity can make with money (specifically the $5,000 grants our partners provide). Our evaluations show that by supporting youth to connect in real life with the work of local charities on issues of their choice, they become motivated to take their engagement further such as through personal growth and skill development, social advocacy, fundraising and/or voluntarism.” Learning about the work that charities do and the sources of funding they can access are helpful for understanding how important it is that charities receive funding and respect for their work. The success of YPI speaks to the importance of direct engagement between young people and community organizations.

How can organizations engage young people in meaningful ways?

For organizations seeking to connect with young people, Holly suggests not only showing them how your work provides immediate interventions, but also how your organization moves the needle on social issues. “Help them to feel invested as part of the solution while suggesting and recognizing their positive actions now… Funders and boards would do well to show leadership in supporting charities to foster meaningful connections with young people IRL (in real life) – not because it’s a nice thing to do – but because it’s a strategic investment in impact, outreach and succession planning.”

Youth may prefer to take a small action before committing to a cause more fully. The Millennial Impact Project finds that “[w]hen inspired, [Millenials] act quickly – from small donations to short volunteer stints – provided that the opportunities are present and the barriers to entry are low.” Acknowledge that engagement can take many forms and provide short-term opportunities that are easily accessible. At the same time, be sure to foster deeper engagement opportunities by including young people in meaningful volunteer and leadership roles within your organization. By creating opportunities for engagement, you are not only building advocates for your cause, but also building your donor base. People who volunteer donate more, in part because they are more likely to be asked for donations and feel social pressure to give.

Central to organizations’ success in engaging young people – and really all community members for that matter – is operating in open and transparent ways. This may frighten organizations that are not used to being so open, but this is what young donors are expecting of the causes they engage with and support. With digital tools such as email, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, it is easier now more than ever to engage in two-way conversations between people, and between people and organizations. These are simple, quick, and inexpensive ways to build trust and affinity with your cause. Kanter & Fine describe “networked nonprofits” as organizations that aren’t afraid to lose control of their programs and services, branding and messaging – these organizations know that, “in return they will receive the goodwill and passion of many people working on behalf.” These are words to take to heart, as youth will engage with organizations that take this leap.

So, where are the giving role models?

Young people are learning about giving in a variety of ways – through school, their peers, and within their communities. There are giving role models all around us, and they take different forms. Charities and nonprofits also have an exciting opportunity to engage youth directly about the vital role they play in moving the needle on important issues. Giving role models are, such as in YPI’s case, the hundreds of dedicated charity professionals who invest time to engage with local teenagers every year.

It seems that in addition to asking who is teaching youth about giving, we can ask what young people are teaching us. Holly describes how high school students that participate in YPI are teaching their parents about charities in the community. “Parents are so touched by what students are finding out” and in some cases becoming more involved in the community. It’s clear that charities and nonprofits can’t underestimate young people’s capacity to give – in terms of activism, time and money. When young people invest in your cause, they can advance your mission in strategic ways that are worth more than any dollar amount.


The Youth and Philanthropy Initiative (YPI) is an inclusive, multi-award-winning secondary school program that strengthens the social sector by engaging youth in local issues, charities, and grant-making. For more information about YPI, visit http://www.goypi.org/.

Imagine Canada’s Personal Philanthropy Project is intended to reawaken Canadians around their giving. While this initiative is seen as a means of encouraging financial gifts among affluent individuals, it also has the potential of setting benchmarks for giving among Canadians who have the capacity to make significant philanthropic contributions. For more information, contact Michèle Benoit, Manager, Personal Philanthropy Project.
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Submitted by Robyn Hochglaube on
I applaud the action being taken by the Personal Philanthropy Project. The younger generation has a different and important perspective on giving and they require a more authentic and meaningful connection to a cause. There are so many ways to engage and converse - lets get these conversations started. Today is already tomorrow. CitizenRad supports your efforts.

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