Breaking Down the “Generation Myth”

Tina Jepson
Tina Jepson

Hi, my name is Tina, and I’m a millennial.

I sometimes feel like I should be ashamed of being part of my generation. In fact, I often tell people that I’m a millennial by age only, but that I connect more with Generation X. You probably know this already, but in some circles, we have a pretty bad rep.

Yet, as I grow older, I’m slowly beginning to realize that the whole idea of what “defines” a generation depends entirely on who you talk to. And thankfully, Josh McQueen, co-founder at McQueen, Mackin & Associates, echoed all my thoughts and feelings and wrapped them up in a fabulously informative package during a session at the 2018 NIO Summit.

In his speech titled “Changes in Giving and Volunteer Work for Nonprofits,” Josh breaks down generational differences and the myths surrounding age groups. Here’s a summary of some of his main points, and what you can do to capitalize on the generational differences among your donor base.

What Constitutes a Generation?


I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot of conflicting data on the date parameters for each generation.

According to Josh, each generation lasts approximately 18 years, and each generation has roughly the same size population because the same number of people have been born every year since 1952. So contrary to popular belief, millennials aren’t a large generation.

The Bigger Picture: Then and Now


He first studied the giving habits of each generation in 2009, during a time when nonprofits were closing down at a rapid pace (15% of all nonprofits failed between 2008-2010).

Fast forward nine years and his research team decided to tackle the same questions again, nearly half a generation later, with a booming economy and a staggering 1.5 million nonprofit organizations on the books.

Breaking Down the Findings


2009 Was Not A Good Year For Giving: Economically, 2009 was a horrible year for everyone, including nonprofits. For example, Boomers weren’t giving more as they age, but the Silent Generation was moving off the “giving stage,” so to speak and leaving estate gifts opposed to annual gifts.

Giving Plateaus Impact Giving, But Change Over Time: Giving steadily increases until donors are in their 40s; paying for their kids’ school expenses, mortgages, etc. These expenses naturally recede during retirement, which is when donors tend to increase amounts as they age.

  • To Do: Don’t assume anything! Just because a donor maxes out at a certain gift amount during middle age doesn’t mean there isn’t room for an increase in the future.

Generation Trends Are Cyclical: Long before Boomers became the generation to target for major gifts, the Silent Generation was busy filling that role. And we can anticipate Boomers filling that role in 20 years or so. Yes, each generation has certain “traits,” but those characteristics don’t necessarily dictate giving. Age, and likewise, the place a person is in their life cycle, is a better indication that a cut-and-dry generation label.

Millennials Are More Generous Than Gen X: Not at present, of course, but when you compare giving age-to-age, Millennials give more than Generation X did. They also give to more organizations than any other generation (12 per year!)

* I guess I’ll reclaim that “Millennial” label now!

Don’t Shy Away from “Older” Donor Bases: Boomers are now just as generous as the Silent Generation was, and all signs point to a generation of Gen Xers that are also as generous as their predecessors. Don’t worry about your “elderly” donor base– realize that you’re targeting the right people at the right time. And eventually, with the right retainment and cultivate efforts, you’ll attract a new donor base of donors with the same generosity.

  • To Do: Use engagement and retention efforts for your older donor base, combined with a strong cultivation plan.

Know When To Ask For Estate Gifts: 80% of all estate plans are created when people are in their 50s/60s, which are the current Gen Xers! However, nonprofits don’t receive those gifts until decades later.

  • To Do: If you haven’t already, start asking for estate gifts as soon as you can!

Direct Mail Isn’t Dead (& Websites Matter): You’ve probably heard this recently, but direct mail is certainly not dead. However, it’s important to know your audience. Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation are much more likely to respond to direct mail than Millennials and Gen X. However, these later generations are much more likely to check out your website and glimpse their email before they give.

  • To Do: Do cater to each age’s communication preferences. It’s how you reach the right people, through the right medium, at the right time.

Community-Driven Fundraising Is Fueled By Millennials: If a millennial likes you’re they’re 50% more likely to share your story than other generations. Therefore, Millennials can help spread the word about your cause and push your message far and wide.

  • To Do: Encourage your younger donors to share your campaigns with their networks of friends and family on social media.

Volunteers Want to Give: Each generation handles volunteering a little differently. Millennials are more likely to volunteer, but Gen Xers take on more projects and Boomers spend more time on projects. Millennials want to lead volunteer projects and Boomers want to follow the lead of others. Look for jobs that your volunteers want to do, and make sure you ask them to give. This study found that volunteers overwhelming want to tithe to you.

  • To Do: Ask your volunteers for a donation.

Stay Tuned For Generation Z: Members of Generation Z are graduating from high school, and their “giving story” is still unknown. However, if they follow the same lifecycle of other generations, then we have a lot to look forward to!

The bottom line? Don’t completely fixate on generations. However, you should know your donors’ ages and cater to them. Expect highs and lows economically, but a standard donor lifecycle that shouldn’t vary much from one generation to the next.

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