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Who Are Pittsburgh's Young Philanthropists?

Nonprofit organizations are finding that Next-Gen donors crave opportunities to give of their time and talents as well as their dollars. Meet 12 young givers who are doing just that in Pittsburgh.



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Maybe it’s a bad rap. Maybe headline writers are taking too many liberties by calling them the “Me, Me, Me Generation.” Maybe the next generation of Pittsburgh philanthropists is giving, in its own way.

In Pittsburgh and elsewhere, nonprofit organizations and foundations are discovering that traditional vehicles of fundraising once key to their survival — mailings, face-to-face solicitations, exclusive formal events — have fallen out of favor with Next-Gen targets of those appeals. Tried-and-true techniques that once convinced Baby Boomers and their parents to open their wallets no longer are sure things to evoke a similar response from their Millennial (roughly, those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) and Gen Z, or post-Millennial (born in the late 1990s/early 2000s) offspring. 

So how do charitable groups today convince new generations to put their money behind the causes or programs they support?

“Older generations were raised on the belief that philanthropy was simply part of being a good citizen,” says David Swisher, president of Animal Friends in Ohio Township. “That concept is not quite as ingrained as it once was. Finding an active way for [young donors] to participate is key to beginning to grow and cultivate a relationship.”

The problem has been studied and documented by numerous notable think tanks, among them the New York-based Foundation Center. In its 2013 Millennial Impact Report, it wrote: “The top takeaway: Millennials first support causes they are passionate about (rather than institutions), so it’s up to organizations to inspire them and show them that their support can make a tangible difference on the wider issue. The question for nonprofits becomes then: How can we fully invest in this generation, immerse them in the cause, and maximize the impact of their interest, time, and giving?”

​Millennials give in order to make an impact, and they prefer to share information about causes rather than organizations, the Foundation Center report adds. They rely on peer influence, and they prefer to connect and give through social media, mobile platforms and social networks or events, according to the report.
 

Locally, those findings are echoed in a study released earlier this year by Campos Inc., the Downtown-based research and strategy firm. It, too, suggests that Millennials aren’t likely to whip out their checkbooks in wild abandon or measure the value of charitable giving with regard to exclusive access to events and member discounts. A large number of young donors, however, are very willing to tap into philanthropic spirit when they strongly believe in a cause, researchers conclude in “Membership Reboot,” a Campos 2016 Consumer Behavior Trends report.

“Millennials are a very important cohort that is already in play, with an increasing percentage of them now in their 30s and their median household income surpassing $70,000. They are optimistic and cause-oriented,” while members of Generation Z are more cautious and pragmatic, says Alice Greene, Campos vice president, secondary research.
They supplement their financial donations with those of time and talent, whether by serving at a soup kitchen or teaching illiterate adults to read. They place more value on memorable experiences than they do on things, and they want to serve and participate in order to feel enriched and that they have shared holistically.

Young givers celebrate the ideals of belonging, inclusiveness and making an impact, unlike those in previous generations who favored the notion of membership having its privileges — think exclusive, invitation-only parties or members-only discounts.

In part, those qualities inspired Signature Financial Planning president Scott Tobe to create the SteelTree Fund. It embodies a “Shark Tank” format to support next-generation innovators with an eye on strengthening continuity in the Jewish community.

If you want to see younger donors line up to get involved, you must change the game so they are able to participate actively and assume decision-making capabilities — and you’ll turn them off with rubber-stamped committee decisions, bureaucracy and pay-to-play events, Tobe says.

“They will only become part of an institution if they feel they can have a direct impact,” he adds.

And maintaining that engagement and charitable commitment requires continual effort and finesse, particularly in persistent evaluation of the ways in which organizations reach young audiences. Active social media accounts are crucial, says Charlie LaVallee, CEO of Variety - The Children’s Charity — although he adds one caveat. “We need to also focus on other community-based events to reach this population that allows them to have fun and learn about our cause,” he says.

When an organization does that successfully, it will tap into a hands-on, passionate group motivated by a strong sense of duty for public service and a deep desire to establish a connection with a cause. From that group, we introduce a dozen young professionals and students who embody an outstanding spirit of local giving.
 

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