Millennial Voices: Advocates and Activists Over Donors and Volunteers

October 6, 2017 Derrick Feldmann

Millennials are dissatisfied with and uncertain about America’s future, says the most recent research released by Achieve in the Millennial Impact Report, The Power of Voice: A New Era of Cause Activation and Social Issue Adoption. Should nonprofits be concerned?

You bet.

Because the largest living generation in U.S. history is taking action to change the future in ways causes, nonprofits, government and even society has never seen before. And those causes that aren’t already adjusting their organizational structure, priorities and donor stewardship practices risk missing the chance to capture the hearts and minds of this vocal, involved group of individuals.

For this phase of research (the second in a three-phase study underway), Achieve surveyed 3,000 millennials (born 1980-2000) about their political and cause-related perceptions and behaviors over the past 12 months. This group of 3,000 reported taking more than 13,000 actions toward supporting causes and social issues in the past year.  

They also voted in the 2016 presidential election in far greater numbers than was expected. In fact, a larger percentage of eligible millennials (65%) said they voted than the percentage of eligible American voters (55%).

Those are just the first of the surprising statistics to emerge from the research. A generation that communicates digitally is turning to traditional forms of social activism to improve society.

What does Millennial voting tell us?

Why are savvy millennials bothering to vote, sign petitions and contact their representatives as ways to support a cause? Why aren’t they just using technology?

Study respondents expressed two major motivations that could be behind their use of more traditional support behaviors:

  1. They believe in their own power to create change, and
  2. They still have faith that government, agencies and nonprofits could address the causes/social issues they care about.

In the first phase of this research, individual interviews, respondents overwhelmingly expressed a desire that “both sides of the aisle” find a better way to work together. In that light, their two motivations may combine in a hope that they can persuade politicians to drop partisanship when it comes to issues of social welfare.

Found: A gulf between genders

Achieve’s research also identified a gulf between males and females in their thoughts and actions relative to bringing about social change.

Prior reports on philanthropic behavior have always shown higher levels of engagement by females than males. In the past 12 months, however, female millennials appear to have become much more discouraged, and less involved, than males.

The first evidence of disillusionment arose at the polls. In the months leading up to the presidential election, Achieve researchers found that among the millennials studied, a significantly smaller percentage of females voted (55%) than males (76%).

Moreover, we identified an interesting twist. Voting was the No. 1 action millennials of both genders preferred to take in support of a cause. However, the No. 2 action among females is perhaps the strongest indicator of their state of mind: If they didn’t vote, they tended not to do anything, as their self-reported second-most-performed behavior was no action.

Taking no action after being so vocal in previous years is a strong indicator of declining optimism among females. But even beyond losing hope or enthusiasm, something else became evident as we drew correlations between gender, behaviors and comments we collected in person and via surveys: Female millennials did not believe in their own power to create change.

A far smaller percentage of female millennials (41%) believed strongly in their ability to improve social challenges through their individual actions than did males (65%). Women also expressed lower levels of confidence that organizations could effectively create change, too.

Females’ belief in their own abilities to create change deteriorated as the presidential campaign progressed.

While half of our respondents overall said they’d done more for causes since the election, the majority were male. Women’s declining belief in themselves and our institutions could explain the drop in their activity.

Other key analyses from the data:

  • Civil rights/discrimination reaches No. 1: Researchers saw a shift since 2016 in the causes and social issues in which millennials are most interested.Within six months of the election, civil rights/racial discrimination topped the list with 29% of millennials, followed by job creation and healthcare (each at 26%.) Prior to the 2016 election, millennials’ top concerns were education and employment/wages.
  • They act, affected or not: Many millennials don’t see themselves as activists. But those who do take action on behalf of causes and social issues regardless of whether they’re part of the group that stands to benefit.
  • Males and older millennials voted more: More male millennials (76%) than females (55%) reported voting in the last presidential election. Age also correlated to voting: 75% of older millennials (31-37) said they voted, compared to 69% of mid-aged millennials (25-30) and 55% of younger millennials (18-24). Just over half (51%) of total respondents reported voting for Hillary Clinton, compared to 35 percent who reported voting for Donald Trump.
  • Local tops national: Millennials engage more with local than national causes, and those who engage nationally still maintain local activities.
  • Digital alone can’t influence: While posting on social media is a popular action to take, millennials rank social media use low in their belief in its power to influence change.

New activists, new activism, new donors

Findings from the latest Millennial Impact Report survey provide intriguing insights into the actions members of this demographic are taking to inspire change. This report spotlights how and why millennials are combining traditional outlets for change-making with digital activism to change even the way change itself occurs. — Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation, sponsor of the Millennial Impact Report.

As evidenced by the findings revealed in this report, the millennial generation is beginning to dramatically alter philanthropy and society’s perceptions of how to inspire change locally, nationally and globally.

It’s time to put preconceived notions around who donates to causes and nonprofits to rest—and soon.

The first generation to grow up with digital outlets for their voices is turning them into megaphones for good. Causes must understand this new mindset and adjust their organization’s structure, priorities and stewardship practices accordingly. The cause sector cannot simply wait for millennials to reach typical donor age. They’re far from typical. — Derrick Feldmann, Achieve CEO and founder, Millennial Imact Project.

Download the Report:

The 2017 Millennial Impact Report (Phase 2), The Power of Voice: A New Era of Cause Activation and Social Issue Adoption, comes on the heels of last year’s study on the influence a presidential election might exert on young people’s support with causes. Download complete reports at themillennialimpact.com.

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