Encouraging Young Donors
By Jim MacDonald
This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 22, No. 1 in 2020. You can access the full issue here.
Along with our bodies and minds, our faith develops over a lifetime; its progress can deepen and mature with careful cultivation. Though each giver is unique, individual attitudes and behaviors can align with those of their generational cohort as they are under similar influences as they grow.
Economic, cultural, and technological trends have had enough of an effect on today’s children, teens, and college students born from 1996 onward (Generation Z) and today’s young adults in their twenties and thirties born between 1981-1996 (Millennials) that attitudes and behaviors differ markedly from earlier generations at the same age.
Both Millennials and Generation Z grew up in a time of unprecedented growth in technology and social media. Gen Z is the first generation to grow up completely in the online world and to have used digital technology from a very young age. Growing up in a post-911 and an era with unprecedented numbers of school shootings, both generations have been influenced by a focus on security and terrorism. They are also dealing with concern for the unprecedented harm of our environment with climate change and plastic pollution—particularly Generation Z who really wants to do something about it. They are becoming more aware of gender dynamics and identity.
Both generations have been influenced by economic downturns and the stagnation of wages. However, being older, Millennials experienced it at the beginning of their careers and are as a result a financially- stressed generation: paying off student debt, building careers, starting families, and trying to save for the future in a 24/7 world of work. The foundation of Millennial passion is their belief in themselves. Millennials believe in crowdsourcing and activism, having learned by experience that banding together to build networks can leverage their impact across multiple causes.
Neither generation has much trust in institutions, but Millennials will build their own institutions rather than join older ones. Gen Z-ers are proving to be even more pragmatic than the Millennials that preceded them and are emerging as a generation of pessimistic skeptics. Gen Z-ers seek authenticity in organizations and look to their peers, social media influencers, family, and celebrities to confirm their opinions.
Immersed in mobile media during most of their free time, Gen Z-ers can have serious issues with body image, cyberbullying, and mental health. In a culture full of lonely people, Gen Z-ers are the loneliest.
That’s not to say that Gen Z is a lost cause. Though they ask tough questions, most teens are spiritually open and have little if any spiritual baggage from problematic Sunday school teaching or interactions with hypocritical Christians because they haven’t gone to church. This means evangelism and discipleship can begin without having to repair what came before.
When given a slate of life priorities to choose from, neither Millennials nor Gen Z-ers rank the pursuit of spiritual maturity or care for the poor and needy particularly high. In this, Christian young people are somewhat distinct from the rest of their cohorts. Young Christians say that their beliefs inspire them toward action. More than half of young Christians say they are “concerned about the welfare of others because of their beliefs.” Statistically, young Christians are twice as likely to give of their time and resources than those with no faith at all. Parental influence has a great deal to do with this difference: positive modeling of generous/helping behavior reinforces children’s helpful and giving behavior.
How can churches engage with these generations to encourage faithful generosity?
Choose causes that are meaningful to young people.
The key to reaching out to both Gen Z-ers and Millennials is to engage their creativity with causes and groups that they determine to be authentic and provide opportunities to be involved in meaningful ways. Such a determination is usually inspired by a sudden crisis. When younger generations give, they are five times more likely than older adults to say that a recent financial gift was spontaneous. Yet they’re twice as likely to say that such a gift required a personal sacrifice on their part. In other words, when younger people feel compelled to give, they are generous.
Provide opportunities for peers to work together on a cause.
Gen Z-ers expect creative input into their giving and Millennials expect to have an active role in the management and execution of a cause. Both generations look to the decisions and behaviors of their peers for insight. In the workplace, Millennials are statistically twice as likely to volunteer or donate to a cause if a respected peer or co-worker does so (rather than a supervisor or CEO.) Young people are accustomed to forming opinions through social media and they want to deliberate and make decisions together.
Encourage small gifts and value all types of gifts equally.
Younger donors prefer to start small before committing wholeheartedly to a cause. Whether they’re giving of their time, their talent, their team (i.e., network), or their treasure, young people see every gift as equal in value. Consequently, they are not as easily compartmentalized into volunteers versus donors. With no loyalty to established institutions, young givers focus on the greater good, creatively employing innovative approaches where possible.
Offer the opportunity to learn about personal financial management.
Young people struggle with debt and the fear of debt obligations. Gen Z-ers and Millennials both need to learn more about money management, and this represents an opportunity for any church. Churches are usually well equipped to disciple Christians in money management because lay leaders are often professionals in financial industries like banking and accounting. Since generosity is only a part of any family’s financial life, it is wise to mentor younger congregants in all the practical and spiritual aspects of their finances. Barna Research tells us that most young congregants say they come to church to grow in their knowledge and relationship with God, so any financial discipleship must still be rooted in the goal of growing in faith.
Helping young donors learn to give is not just about teaching generosity but about encouraging Christian maturity, which also includes helping to strengthen their prayer life and care for the world at large. Learning about giving is simply one component of the evangelism that, over a lifetime, helps develop well-grounded Christian disciples.
As the Development Manager for Stewardship & Planned Giving for The Presbyterian Church in Canada, Jim MacDonald works on donor engagement strategies and on developing and expanding donor relationships. He organizes and leads educational presentations and workshops in stewardship at the presbytery and congregational level, advising congregations in planned and major gifts strategies to help grow a culture of generosity.
Giving Magazine was a premier stewardship resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) from 1999 until 2020. The magazine served Christian faith communities throughout North America, providing thoughtful, practical, and inspirational content on faith and giving from thought leaders and practitioners alike. Giving was published annually from 1999 until 2018 (volumes 1-20), and then quarterly in 2019 and 2020 (volumes 21-28) in digital form only. In 2021 ESC closed its doors and committed its archives to the care of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. For further information on ESC or its archives, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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