How do you steward millennial donors?

By Maria Morrison

Millennials are a tricky donor population. They’re tough to acquire in the first place, and once they do give, they often fail to renew. To lift retention rates and develop long-term giving habits, advancement leaders look to donor relations staff to deepen relationships to the institution and underscore the case for giving.

Yet many of our “tried and true” stewardship strategies fall flat with millennial donors. Form thank you notes and, for those giving at a leadership annual level, society certificates hold little cache with millennials. Indeed, 73% of donors throw away the plaques and certificates they receive from nonprofit organizations, and 83% of donors said that these stewardship touches had no impact on their giving at all.

To retain young donors into the future, colleges and universities must develop a new stewardship playbook. Advancement leaders across North America have seen great success by adapting their current strategies to the three new rules of millennial stewardship: create a feeling of exclusivity, demonstrate impact through digital channels, and accommodate millennials’ desire for connection online.

1. Create a feeling of exclusivity

Millennials crave exclusivity and insider knowledge. They want to be “in the know”—ideally, before everyone else! To meet this expectation, Ithaca College created a password-protected presidential blog. Advancement staff and key volunteers at Ithaca curate content about the president’s insights and vision for the College and share on a blog that it only accessible to donors who have given above $1,000.

Ithaca College Alumni Blog

The exclusive nature to the blog gives millennials (and other leadership annual donors) a feeling of being insiders. They receive advance knowledge, updates, and insights into the college. This insider blog access doubled the open rate for emails to participating alumni and contributed to a more than 17% growth in leadership annual donors at Ithaca within two years of the blog’s launch.

2. Demonstrate impact through digital channels

The next generation of donors wants to see the impact of their donations from day one. The 2013 Cygnus Donor found that 64% of donors prioritize seeing stories about the people they have helped. Yet time-consuming and resource-intensive paper thank you notes don’t do a compelling job of showing millennials the true impact of their gifts.

At Boston College, beneficiary thank you emails provide recognition of donors’ impact while putting a face to donors’ philanthropy. Advancement staff interview the beneficiaries of donors’ gifts, such as students and faculty members leading research projects, and they write high-quality email narratives in the beneficiaries’ voices that are distributed regularly to all donors.

Elements of a Successful Snapshot

  • Addressed directly to the donor
  • Short and heartfelt
  • Written in the voice of the beneficiary
  • Distributed every 3 to 4 months
  • Rotating themes touch different donor interests

Boston College found that donors engage at a phenomenal rate with the thank-you emails. While the average open rate for emails from the institution is just 30%, this stewardship touch brought a 51% open rate.

3. Accommodate their desire for connection online

Millennials spend a substantial amount of time on social media and are more likely to engage with content that is linked to by their friends and acquaintances. At Skidmore College, social media ambassadors provide a unique way to share impact and donor stories online. Skidmore’s ambassadors were responsible for posting impact stories and recognizing donors during the institution’s giving day. Alumni (and non-alumni supporters) could repost and share the content, resulting in recognition from their personal social networks.

Skidmore developed the ambassador program after past experience with giving days. Thanks to the ambassadors, they saw a 597% year-over-year increase in giving from one giving day to the next.

Advancement Timeline

Planning for social media success

By providing millennials with the online content they want, advancement teams ensure that the next generation of major gift donors is engaging now.

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