Growing up, I danced ballet. One of my loveliest childhood memories is watching the Houston Ballet perform “Swan Lake” at Miller Outdoor Theater, unfolding the tragedy of Odette and Siegfried under Tchaikovsky’s haunting melodies. Suddenly, the hours, pain, exhaustion, and discouragement I spent at the dance studio each week made sense. Looking back, I realize now that I owe those beautiful memories to a nonprofit organization, the Houston Ballet. The work of this nonprofit dance company gave me a few blissful hours of delight and inspired me to grow as a dancer and an artist. When I watched “Swan Lake,” I knew nothing about the company, but I left with my soul on fire.
I see nonprofits as the often-invisible backbone of our society. It takes a tremendous effort to accomplish what they do, and many people believe that the young folks of Generation Y, a.k.a. Millennials, are apathetic and unappreciative of those efforts to build a better world. They say we prefer to spend our time consuming technology instead of investing in our society. As a Millennial, I argue that this is not the case. The Millennial generation is not indifferent to real-world problems just because we choose to address them through technology and social media.
Millennials often hear the term “slacktivism” used to describe our approach to philanthropy and social responsibility. This term, which has both merits and flaws, applies to public-spirited campaigns requiring little to no apparent effort. One example is the fad of purchasing shoes from Toms, which donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair a customer buys. This allows customers to feel charitable while buying trendy shoes for themselves, with little concern about the implications of interfering in the economies of remote villages around the globe. Slacktivism also refers to creating public awareness while sitting behind a computer or swiping a smart phone screen. The 2012 crusade against Joseph Kony completely took over social media sites. More recently, the enormous wave of ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos went viral, raising awareness for Lou Gehrig’s disease through people drenching themselves and/or donating a minimum of $10 to the research fund.
Young people today are nowhere near as well off as our parents were 3o years ago and have considerably fewer prospects in today’s downtrodden economy. Our standards of living are lower, and clinical depression is higher. Generally speaking, we will work harder for comparatively lower compensation, and be grateful just to have work. Yet, despite our grim prospects, we have not lost empathy. Being “poor college students” does not mean we are apathetic.
The example of the ALS ice bucket challenge demonstrates that we as a generation care about the struggles of others, because we ourselves struggle to find our way in the world. These modern campaigns reveal something crucial – the Millennial tool for philanthropy is technology, not money, and we are eager to use it for a greater purpose. Here we see the merits of slacktivism. Participants in the ice bucket challenge generally tended to be young, particularly college students. The Millennials, the smart phone generation, helped raise millions of dollars for charity by banding together, using social media, and giving small amounts. Financial campaigns raise impressive amounts, because millions of people are aware of them and donate small amounts.
Don’t overlook Millennials in your philanthropic campaigns. We have little money, true, but we want to help. This past August, the San Antonio Food Bank held an event that drew more than 600 Trinity University student volunteers – a number representing almost an entire class year at Trinity. Ask for our labor, talents, and time. One hundred people who care about a cause and give $10 each can have a greater impact than one large gift from an apathetic donor. Encourage a generation to make a habit of giving what they can, and that will reap massive benefits in the long-term. Twenty years from now, those same 100 people could each be giving hundreds of dollars to charities and have spread the word to hundreds more, whereas continuing to target that same person who gave $1,000 20 years ago does not guarantee growth. Target the young people who have energy, empathy, and 800 Facebook friends and Twitter followers. They are the ones who will spread the word about a nonprofit giving day with a few swipes of their smart phone screens. Foster these skills and encourage us to grow in them, and it will yield long-term results.
This is my advice to nonprofits to inspire philanthropy in Millennials:
- Don’t ask for large amounts of money. At the Trinity University Phonathon, where I was a student caller for a semester, one of the “asks” we were trained to provide was “Give Your Grad Year.” For instance, 2012 graduates are asked to donate $20.12. Twenty dollars and some change will probably not break the bank, and it’s fun to participate in a way that feels personal.
- Offer incentives when you ask for donations, like matching funds and drawings for prizes.
- Because we have little financial security, it’s hard for us to drop money on anything other than an immediate need. Thus, it is ultra-important for us to know where our money is going. Don’t provide general information and ask for a gift – tell us exactly how you will use our money, be it paving 10 feet of a sidewalk or buying one blanket for a homeless shelter.
- Keep in mind that we are extremely tech-savvy. Enlist us for help in publicizing your organization and fundraisers. We may not have much money, but we have the social media knowledge to reach people who do. As computers and phones have become increasingly high-tech, we have been criticized by older generations for being so glued to them. A justifiable complaint, but, if we have become so much more adept at virtual interactions than physical ones, why not use that to your advantage? We would love to do something helpful with the “skill” of social networking, if only to prove that technology hasn’t turned us into heartless zombies.
Finally, remember: We do care about our society. If you doubt this, step onto a college campus. There will be flyers and posters advertising some lecture, marathon, or volunteer opportunity related to improving society. Students wear T-shirts that promote events like MLK Day marches, or organizations like service fraternities. Every year at Trinity University, masses of upperclassmen move back for the fall semester early and spend all of first-year move-in day helping the new students and their families unload and move into the residence halls. We are not all self-absorbed narcissists who couldn’t care less about the people around us. Help us find causes we care about, be it sports, education, or ballet. Accept that we have a different set of valuable resources. And allow us to surprise you.
*Featured/top image: Residents of Hope Hall at Trinity University make sandwiches for the homeless. Photo courtesy of Trinity University.