June 11, 2019


Millennials Are Givers, and Uniquely So

By: Peter Lipsett

Millennials give differently. New studies have shown the way we think about our charitable efforts doesn’t quite match the thinking of older generations.

If we are giving, we are giving more. That’s the finding of a new paper out of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Massachusetts. The paper, titled Are Millennials Really So Selfish?, finds that, “conditional on making a gift, the Millennials donate more than members of earlier generations.”

Good job, everyone.

On the other hand, it also finds that “Millennials are somewhat less likely to make any donations at all than their generational predecessors.”

So if we are giving, we’re out-giving the older folks. But too many of us are not yet engaged with philanthropy. That might be because, as the study notes, our generation is getting started with adulting tasks later than earlier cohorts.

In other words, around the time past generations might be settled with jobs and mortgages, we are still single, renting, and paying off student loans.

We’ll come back to the folks who aren’t giving. The ones who are giving do so in a significant way. A new Fidelity Charitable study on generational cohort giving trends looks into the habits of entrepreneurs among Millennials, GenXers and Baby Boomers.

The big news? Millennials’ median annual giving is a whopping twice as much as either of those other cohorts at $13,654. Millennials engage more broadly and in a more hands-on way.

The Take-Aways

Given this, plus some research we at DonorsTrust conducted late last year, what is the true state of Millennial giving? What are the real lessons? Here are the keys to understanding the giving trends of your peers, which may give you some additional insight into your own charitable practice.

We Want To Be Hands-On

I often hear some variation of “I want to be involved with the groups I support” when people talk with me about their giving. The Fidelity study bears this out, indicating that “Millennial entrepreneurs want to be hands-on and involved.” Almost all of them appreciated a charity that offered volunteer opportunities, with half seeing those as a way to learn new skills.

Our Giving Priorities Are Different

That desire for involvement suggests an interest in supporting causes closer to home. A Hanover Research study examining trends in higher education giving found that, “Millennials currently prefer to donate to causes they see as more local and immediate than their alma mater.” So while giving to colleges continues to rise, it is doing so on the backs of large donations, not by adding young alums.

Interestingly, according to research DonorsTrust conducted in late 2018, 53% of donors under 40 who gave to education were giving to the school their children attended. Only 19% gave to their college alma mater.

When we do give to our alma maters, we want to understand where it’s going and how it relates to our other interests. As the Hanover study points out, “Young donors are especially interested in knowing how their donations support their institution, and in turn, how their institution can directly support the community and the wider world.”

We Have Vulnerability Issues

Millennials give to a broader swath of charities than the older cohorts. This may be related to trust issues. The Fidelity report notes that “while [Millennials] are more likely than other generations to see giving as part of their identity, they also may have lower levels of trust in the nonprofits they support.”

In other words, we’re spreading our giving to a lot of organizations because we know some of them will let us down. At this stage in life, I think this is a better approach than a strategy of only supporting a few groups you know will do right by you. The dollar amounts we are giving now are no match for the larger ones we will give later, and we certainly want those to be pointed at groups that have already shown us they deserve the funds.

We Give More Than The Research Reflects

This point is a bit of an assumption, precisely because the data isn’t good here. The National Bureau of Economic Research study relies on data from the Lilly School of Philanthropy’s long-running Philanthropy Panel Study. This is a really valuable dataset, but one limitation is that it does not track peer-to-peer giving through sites like GoFundMe. This type of giving raises significant sums, and sites like GoFundMe are more likely to be used by a younger demographic. Again, we don’t have good data here, but my guess is that there are more Millennials giving than studies show because of peer-to-peer giving.

Who Really Cares?

Arthur Brooks’ 2006 classic Who Really Cares surprised everyone by showing that it was conservatives, not liberals, who were more likely to support charitable causes and to do so more significantly.

Today, data increasingly shows that, when it comes to charitable giving, it is us who care more than we are given credit for.

In fact, if the points made in the Fidelity study are true, we view giving as part-and-parcel to our broader efforts, not as a distinct bucket in our life.

That offers an exciting opportunity for a generation with our best years ahead of us to make a remarkable impact on the world. I hope you’ll be part of it with your own giving.