Habitat Young Professionals group shot

Members of Habitat for Humanity’s young professionals group pose at a build site. The group, made up of roughly 35 young people, meets throughout the year to volunteer, socialize and raise funds for Habitat.

Local nonprofits are fighting a national trend of fewer charitable donors by targeting Nebraska’s youngest generation of donors.

The share of Americans who donate to charity is shrinking across all age groups, according to a report in the June issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. In 2000, roughly 66 percent of people donated to charity, a number that had dropped to about 55 percent by 2014.

The Chronicle points to an eroding donor base comprised mostly of older donors as cause for concern: Who will be tomorrow’s donors?

About one in three people under the age of 30 say they give to nonprofits. That’s down from 42 percent of that age group who donated to charity in 2000. Meanwhile, about 71 percent of those age 61 and up support philanthropies, according to the study.

With these statistics in mind and an eye on the future, some local nonprofits have shifted their strategies to meet younger donors where they are.

Omaha’s Habitat for Humanity is one group that has changed tactics. Instead of one formal gala event each year, for example, the organization now emphasizes several more-casual events popular with a younger crowd. Brew Haha, a beer- and food-tasting event, attracts 2,000 people each year, said Meggan Thomas, the organization’s development officer.

The home-building nonprofit has seen its dollars and donors increase thanks to a creative and diverse approach to fundraising, Thomas said.

“We can’t just do direct mail anymore, we can’t just do one annual gala event anymore,” Thomas said. “We do have more pipelines of giving than we’ve ever had.”

Nationally, the decline in the number of donors has not translated to a dip in total donations. In fact, Giving USA recently reported that a record-breaking amount of money was donated to charity in 2017.

Ruth Henneman, Lutheran Family Services’ vice president of development, said that in addition to fundraising mainstays, her organization has implemented new strategies such as mobile giving, social media campaigns and Facebook Live events in response to donor feedback.

“I think across all generations, it’s really been about convenience,” Henneman said. “Now, there’s so many different channels, so we really want to be strategic. ... We really want to listen to those young donors and look at their feedback and find out what works for them.”

Thomas said Habitat has gained new donors through Omaha Gives, an annual 24-hour online giving spree that she thinks is the “perfect match” for younger donors who like to give online donations, and often in smaller amounts.

Thomas said today’s young people are giving differently — online donations have replaced mailings, just like automatic monthly contributions replace one annual check.

“They want their experience to be different,” Thomas said.

Matt Coan Habitat for Humanity

Matt Coan, 30, works on a Habitat for Humanity home. Coan is the former president of the nonprofit's Young Professionals group. Younger donors are more inclined to give time than money to nonprofits, Coan said.  

Research confirms this theory. Michael Moody of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a cultural sociologist who has studied nonprofits for decades, said young people want to make a significant impact through hands-on work that creates visible change in causes they care about.

“They don’t want to just plan a party or attend a gala,” said Moody, co-author of 2017’s “Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors are Revolutionizing Giving.” “They want to sit at the table with the staff of a nonprofit and solve a problem.”

Moody said young people also are eager to make a difference in new ways, such as investing in socially responsible businesses, buying fair-trade products or working for a company with a mission they support. This makes it difficult to track their charitable giving in a traditional sense, he said.

“The measure of how much money they’re giving to nonprofits is no longer the measure of how much good they’re doing in the world,” Moody said. Nonprofits would be smart to engage with these young people now, Moody said.

“They may not be the major donors right now,” Moody said, “but 10, 15 years from now they may have a lot more money than they look to have right now. It’s going to be those organizations that they’ve been volunteering for that they’re going to write the big check to.”

Some nonprofits, including Habitat and United Way of the Midlands, have young professionals groups that combine the philanthropic and social experience. These groups allow members to feel more connected to a cause, Thomas said.

“It feels more communal,” Thomas said, “than a solitary experience in the past of writing a check to an organization.”

Younger generations may be more inclined to give their time instead of money, said Matt Coan, former president of Habitat’s young professionals group, which includes around 35 members who volunteer, socialize and raise funds together throughout the year.

Young people who are at an early stage in their careers and may be burdened by student-loan debt are less inclined to donate money, said Coan, who’s 30. But that doesn’t stop them from gaining life-enriching experience through hands-on involvement with causes they are passionate about.

“I’ve always told people I feel like I gave hundreds and hundreds of hours,” Coan said, “but I would absolutely say that I took more out of it than I was able to give.”

The Habitat young professionals group, which requires $45 annual dues, raises money through events such as concerts or happy hours that generate money while people socialize and mingle. Beyond the immediate funds raised, Coan said, nonprofits like Habitat benefit by investing in younger individuals who are likely to stay engaged and provide future support.

“People that are part of our group are going to be future board members, are going to be future big-time donors,” Coan said. “You’re growing your next generation of leadership within your organization.”

Henneman said that, despite the study showing a national decrease in the number of people who give to charity, she is optimistic about the generous attitude of Nebraskans.

“I really believe that people want to help people, they want to solve the problems in our society,” Henneman said. “I really believe that everybody is generous.”

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