Make Room for Millennials

by Michal Tyra and William Bessette


It might seem an odd fit: a nonprofit aligning itself with 20- to 32-year-olds who, at first blush, appear to have little in common with such institutions.

But successful nonprofits believe such a pairing is simply good strategy, especially considering that half the U.S. work force by 2020 will consist of this young demographic known as millennials.

They are 80 million in number, and they spend $300 billion annually as reported in The Millennial Impact Project conducted by Achieve, a national research and creative agency for causes. And, as it turns out, millennials do have something quite significant in common with the nonprofit: They are driven by causes, not money.

For those reasons, executives sitting on nonprofit boards should take note. “Most nonprofits currently rely heavily on the baby boomer generation for leadership and donor support,” says Kelsey Wolf-Donnay, individual giving manager at Desert Botanical Garden. It’s no secret that boomers are aging and retiring, placing millennials at the heart of the nonprofit’s sustainability. “The task of inviting and including upcoming generations to support the nonprofit is crucial.”

But how does a nonprofit most effectively engage the millennial? Recruitment, leadership training and cultivation are keys. Corporate executives who sit on nonprofit boards can encourage their organizations to:


First, look at the nonprofit: Are young leaders even employed within or volunteering at the organization? If they are absent, the organization needs to identify those young individuals already connected to the mission and vision. Then it should begin to diversify its committee and board memberships — altering the long-held governing structure. In other words: Make room for millennials.


Understanding millennials’ priorities, motivations, habits and desires — and even their feelings about philanthropy — goes a long way in developing a strategy for the future. It is helpful to understand that millennials:

  • Seek more than a paycheck. They want to serve a cause they care about, and often choose where to live and work based on this cause.
  • Are driven to prove themselves to social circles and their co-workers.
  • Want to engage personally rather than simply write a check. Millennials define “giving” through their investment in time and have a longer trajectory toward becoming donors.
  • “Millennials are often entrepreneurial as well,” says Edgar Olivo, board development chairman for Arizona Humanities. “And therefore they are often interested in the nonprofit’s social enterprise opportunities.”


One way to engage with millennials is to cultivate them as volunteers early on. Continued acknowledgment of volunteers’ importance may lead to them becoming some of the organization’s most loyal donors when they are able to contribute financially.

Volunteer programs also provide nonprofits with access to local talent that may grow alongside the organization. “Also, don’t forget,” says Olivo, “that young volunteers come highly skilled in technology and are highly motivated because the workplace is a new world to them. This can re-energize their older peers and breed new perspectives.”

Youth cultivation can also occur through meaningful internship opportunities that engage young people in the real work of the nonprofit. Interns who are running for coffee or making copies are a missed resource for the nonprofit’s future growth strategy and stability.


Nonprofits must make a genuine commitment to develop young leaders through educational opportunities, mentorship opportunities and professional development.

One option is to create a young professionals group, which serves as a talent recruitment incubator for the nonprofit. In such groups, millennials participate in leadership development training opportunities sponsored by the nonprofit organization while networking with other young professionals.

In this capacity, youth have the chance to try on the nonprofit sector for fit while the organization builds community ties with future leaders, all connected to one another. “The goal is to increase the number of young professionals in your organization,” says Wolf-Donnay, citing Desert Botanical Garden’s Monarch Program for young professionals, which grew from 50 to 485 members over four years. “The other goal is to increase their involvement in the organization.”

When organizations focus on leadership development for young professionals, it sends a powerful message. “It also builds a sense of loyalty and trust,” says Emily Mead, director of strategic engagement at the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. “Nonprofits that don’t put a strong emphasis on the development of young leaders risk the opportunity to gain long-term donors and miss the chance to tap top talent for new branding and fundraising ideas.”


Attracting Young Talent from Arizona’s Back Yard

shutterstock-173732474Local nonprofit The Manifesto Project Arizona ( designed its program to assist local for-profit and nonprofit organizations in their efforts to develop a pipeline of young leaders, and it also welcomes local organizations to become a host or community partner.

Through the Manifesto Project’s Board Apprenticeship Program, organizations reserve a “shadow” position on their boards of directors, executive committees or subcommittees for a high-potential young professional matched to their organization or identified internally.

Young leaders receive board and professional development training through the Manifesto Project’s community partners, are assigned a mentor within the host organization, and serve a one-year, non-voting term during which they gain invaluable high-level strategic experience in their chosen sector.

“We recognize the continual need for new energy and new ideas to solve some of the most basic problems confronting the changing face of hunger,” says Beverly Damore, president and CEO of participating organization St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance. “We believe that the young leaders joining our organization have the opportunity to interact and give back to our community in ways they never have been able to before. We could not be more pleased to work with them, and are honored to have this opportunity.”

The program is designed to assist local for-profit and nonprofit organizations in their efforts to develop a pipeline of young leaders.


Millennial Facts

The final session of The Giving Institute’s 2015 Spring Board Meeting and Summit included a panel of young Arizona leaders and focused on the critical importance of youth leadership development, engagement and philanthropy to the continued vitality of nonprofits. Among the insights that were shared:

  • A commitment to youth leadership development is one way to counteract the millennial’s tendency to migrate from position to position.
  • Millennials view volunteerism as a form of philanthropy and see the giving of their time, energy and ideas as significant contributions.
  • Organizations should allow young leaders to really examine the programs they are a part of, analyzing their usefulness in the organization.

Michal Tyra and William Bessette are consulting associates with The Phoenix Philanthropy Group, an Arizona-based international consulting firm serving nonprofit organizations as well as institutional and individual philanthropists. 

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