How To Get Fire in Your Organization's Belly: Key Insight from the Millennial Donor Summit | Beth's Blog

How To Get Fire in Your Organization’s Belly: Key Insight from the Millennial Donor Summit


Millennials – We know they are young, tech savvy and well-educated-but they are also some of the most active when it comes to donating and volunteering.   So what’s the secret to engaging Millennials in your  nonprofit organization’s work?   The Millennial Donor Summit explored this question and others while engaging participants in a virtual setting.     The MDS11 extended the concepts and ideas discovered in the annual Millennial Donors Survey conducted by JGA and Achieve by building knowledge around the topic of  millennial engagement.  Download the complete 2011 Millennial Donor Study findings and recommendations by visiting

I was tapped to “live blog”  a plenary session called “Generational Divide”  with speakers Wendy Harman and Suzy DeFrancis, American Red Cross and David Smith and Michael Weiser, National Conference on Citizenship and moderated by Kari Dunn, Case Foundation.     The panel was focused on how “Next Gen Leaders” are influencing and changing nonprofits from the inside out and was designed tolook at ways to encourage sharing across generations within organizations.

Unfortunately,  I had an epic FLASH failure which prevented me from hearing the live streamed program in real time.    Luckily, there was an incredible Twitter stream using the hashtag #mdc11 and some of my favorite nonprofit Millenials (and Babyboomers and Genxers) were sharing nuggets of insight.     Amy Sample Ward did this very thorough transcript of the session.      It is a good thing that virtual conferences and Twitter hashtags go together like milk and cookies!

Here are my big picture takeaways from participating in this networked, virtual cross-generational exchange that explored the lessons learned from generation to generation –while encouraging more organizations to look within their own institutions at how they must change in order to attract, retain and engage new donors, activists, champions, etc.

One big myth is that Millennials don’t trust nonprofit institutions and that isn’t true according to Wendy Harman from the Red Cross.   Millennials want to be hands on with nonprofits, get inside and effect change.    While Millennials may be perceived to be “selfish little babies” – they want nonprofits to be efficient, useful, and engaging.   Yet, both within and on the outside, Millennials with great ideas and passion are often met with coldwater statements from their managers like  “That is not the way we do things here.”

Millennials have the potential to bring a lot of value in leadership to nonprofits from within.  They get emerging media and are ready to teach.   They can bring their passion, their “fire in the belly” to the nonprofit and the nonprofit is better for it.   Finally, they have collaboration and networking skills that are in their DNA that they can bring to the nonprofit workplace.   But this takes a different kind of management approach, rather than organize them, nonprofits need to facilitate Millennials to organize themselves.  (Cat herding skills?)

If nonprofits want to understand Millennials, they need to talk to them, put them on their board.   Several Millennials, including colleague, Clay Lord, agreed that serving on a board is a good way to engage them.   Clay advised that it is important to clarify board roles,  be a good listener, and have diversity.    A board of all babyboomers or Millennials isn’t good either.

These threads reasonated because I had just come hearing a talk by Poonam Muttreje, CEO of the Population Foundation of India and part of the team that developed the Ashoka Fellows Program, who reflected on many years of experience on designing and implementing leadership programs.    She is passionate believer in the value of individual leadership for social change.    She talked about different selection criteria, but those who have “fire in the belly” are the ones that can ultimately lead and change the world.

It struck me from the Tweets and reading the transcripts, that nonprofits have the opportunity to put fire in the bellies of their programs by engaging Millennials from the inside and out with their programs.

Be sure to read these blog posts about other topics covered at the Millennial Donor Summit

7  Things I learned about Engagement from Mr. Youth by Katya Andresen
7 ways to Create Killer, Engaged Fundraising Campaigns by Nathan Hand
Micro Volunteering by Kivi Leroux Miller
Applying Strategic Storytelling and Fundraising by Geoff Livingston

9 Responses

  1. Robyn Hawk says:

    ” Millennials with great ideas and passion are often with coldwater statements from babyboomer nonprofit leaders such as “That is not the way we do things here.””

    This cracked me up – I am the Baby Boomer that is ALWAYS hearing that! …so this is not just a millennial issue. Most non-profits need to start thinking outside their safe little box. Just because it didn’t work 5 years ago – doesn’t mean that, in the right hands, it can’t work today!

    Stepping off my Soap Box! ;-p


  2. Beth says:

    Robyn: One other comment was that “Millennials are focused on passion, Babyboomers on their careers.” I’m a babyboomer and have always followed my passion — and turned it into my work. So, it is hard to make general statements about generations, but there are themes ..

  3. Robyn Hawk says:

    I am totally with you on the “finding your passion and making it your work!”

    Thanks for the great recap of the session…

  4. Gavin Heaton says:

    As the president of a NFP board in the “youth sector”, I have to agree that a mix is essential at the Board level. Too many “grey heads” and there is a real cultural distance between the board and the organisation, but skewed the opposite way sees too much reinvention and not enough useful experience.

    It is always useful to find common purpose. Once we have that the age gap disappears – and amazingly we can find ways of working together.

  5. Thx for capturing this Beth! I think one of the biggest challenges is how orgs can cultivate that fire without feeling overwhelmed and perhaps intimidated by all that energy. What can the org leadership do to help themselves trust the process?

  6. Beth says:

    Good question Rebecca! Not everyone enjoys the energy, but having gen z’s in the house, I live with it!

    Gavin, good point about how common goals help unite a group of people.

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