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Engaging Millennials and Gen Z is All About the Journey

By January 22, 2020

“Young people aren’t our primary audience. They don’t seem to care about our cause.”

When nonprofit leaders tell me they’re not focused on engaging Millennials and Gen Z, alarm bells go off in my head. Not only are young people passionate about almost every social challenge we’re facing and willing to put their dollars behind the causes that matter to them, but they also represent today’s largest population of potential donors and volunteers.

When leaders say, “They don’t seem to care,” they’re often venting their frustration that young people aren’t as quick to become loyal supporters as older generations were. It’s true – building connections with Millennials and Gen Z requires nonprofits to get creative and strategic about engagement. Reading the YMCA’s recent report about engaging young Americans in cause work, the finding that struck me most was that while a vast majority of young people say they wish they could do more to help the causes they care about, 22% of them say they’re held back by not knowing how to get started. If young people want to get involved but don’t know how, then as a sector, we’re missing a major opportunity. Building effective engagement journeys has never been more important.


If your organization hasn’t yet invested in reaching young people, here’s where you can start:

  1. Map out an engagement journey specifically designed for young supporters. Cultivating support used to be linear: awareness and education about a cause would soon lead to volunteerism and donations. Now, it’s up to you to create personalized journeys with multiple points of entry and a variety of commitment levels – chances for young people to learn about a cause, understand why it’s relevant to their passions and interests, and test out ways of getting involved. The story you tell should be customized based on what you know about the individual and it should be consistent no matter where or how they’re engaging with you, whether it’s via email or text, on social media, or in person.
  2. Set at least one engagement goal that isn’t donation-focused. Engagement comes in many forms, and young people often want to get to know an organization deeply before making a donation. Connecting with young people is a long-term investment, but one that is critical to the long-term sustainability of any organization. Resist the urge to assume that for young people, “engagement” must mean social media activity. The YMCA’s study found that the youngest folks polled, Gen Z, are actually less likely than Millennials to use social media as a megaphone for their causes. They’re more likely to get involved at in-person events. For this audience, think about how digital communications can drive offline action to support your cause.
  3. Pilot an idea for engaging a younger audience. Test communications designed for Millennials and Gen Z, include them as a target audience in an upcoming campaign, or prioritize recruiting young volunteers for an upcoming event. Keep it small. The important part is to get started: implement an idea that prioritizes young people, collect data about what works and what doesn’t, and start making inroads with this audience. As a sector, we can’t afford not to invest in our next generation of supporters.

If you’re worried about diverting your organization’s attention from your reliable, older donors and volunteers in order to pursue a new audience, remember that the work you do to engage young people shouldn’t be done in a silo. It’s not just Millennials and Gen Z who expect personalization and will more strongly support organizations who give it to them – it’s all of us. Everyday digital experiences, from Netflix and Lyft to mobile shopping and banking, have conditioned us all to expect a personal touch at every turn. So as you’re creating compelling journeys, designing multiple points of entry for new supporters, and expanding your view of “engagement,” include all of your audiences. You’re likely to see an uptick in support from all of your constituents – no matter what generation they belong to.

Young people are becoming louder, more powerful, and more capable of giving each year. They want to be contributors to solving the world’s most pressing issues, and it’s up to all of us in the nonprofit sector to harness that energy and give them the opportunities they want to impact change. What better time to start than now? recently surveyed top marketing and engagement nonprofit professionals to understand important trends in the industry. Download this report to get an inside look at the marketing and engagement tools, channels and strategies for nonprofit organizations.


About the Author

Greg Perlstein

Greg Perlstein is an Innovation Lead for, working with customers to chart their paths to digital transformation. Prior to joining two years ago, Greg was a senior director at, the world’s largest nonprofit for young people and social change. Greg holds an MBA from the University of Michigan and has over a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector.