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Millennials – generally defined as those individuals born after the very late 1970’s or early 1980’s – are understood as holding philanthropy “near and dear to them.” While we cannot say that this is wrong, we also cannot say if this is necessarily right.

“5 Reasons Millennials Are Going To Save The World (We Hope),” “Millennials: The Hopeful Generation,” and “Millennials: The Next Greatest Generation?” are just three examples of recent articles about my generation. The general narrative maintains that millennials are going to clean up the problems left behind by our parents and grandparents. Trait studies tell us that millennials are altruistic. Financial projections show that the “recession generation” is acting responsibly in terms of money management. Other reports show millennials are eager to serve and change the world.

As hopeful as I am that my peers and I will be able to leave a positive impact on our civil society, our governing institutions, and the generations that follow, my hope remains somewhat grounded. As a member of the “participation trophy” generation, I am skeptical whether we deserve the approbations that we have received. Despite the high praise, let us remember that last month a Reason-Rupe poll found that 65 percent of Americans say that millennials are entitled --- and, much to our chagrin, 58 percent of millennials agreed! At the very least, millennials seem to be quite self-aware.

This past weekend, an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Talking Philanthropy with Millennials” highlighted the philanthropic proclivities of this nascent generation. Despite being an article about talking to millennials, none of the quoted sources self-identified as being millennials; instead, they just spoke about millennials. Ted Jenkin of Oxygen Financial stated, “Millennials want to make the world a better place.” Ben Pierce of Vanguard Charitable remarked, “Provide less tax talk and ask [millennials] about their person passions and interests.” Despite the article’s title, the article was actually “Talking Philanthropy with People Who Have Supposedly Talked Philanthropy with Millennials.”

The article leads off, however, quoting an annual study by Achieve, which looks at millennial giving (and volunteering) behavior. The 2014 Millennial Impact Report found that 87 percent of millennials gave financial gifts to nonprofits last year. This report was also quoted this weekend in The Huffington Post, as the author of that article highlighted the fact that 92 percent of millennials are “contributing their creative skills to companies they feel are making a difference in the world.”

The 2014 Millennial Impact Report aims to “understand Millennials’ preferences for cause work and to share those findings with organizations that are looking to better engage this influential group.” The report comes out three times a year in three stages – online research (survey), user testing, and millennial panel. Currently, the online research is the only currently available data in the 2014 report. The survey looks at 1,514 completed surveys in 2014, filled out by employed millennials. With over 10 percent unemployment among 20 to 24 year olds (as of August 2014), it appears that the reports of the 2014 Millennial Impact Report have made some sweeping assumptions about the whole generation, rather than just those who are employed.

Another issue with both the report and the reports about the report is that there is an underlying assumption that millennials are different, and yet there remains little data to justify that assumption. Sure, the report tells us that millennials enjoy social causes integrated with their work, but it would seem that determining the novelty of this gratification is significant for both descriptive and practical reasons. Other reports, like #nextgendonors, attempt to get at this cohort difference but are too shallow in scope. The 2014 Millennial Impact Report is a great resource for what it aims to be, viz. a resource for companies to rethink CSR directed towards millennials. The problem, however, is that the report is being taken to describe issues it simply cannot address. 

The jury may still be out on millennial philanthropy and we should remain hopeful, yet prudent, as the behavior of my generation continues to play out.

1 thought on “Knowing or hoping? Millennials and philanthropy”

  1. Good insight. Who is quoting who? Is there any raw data?

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