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Get Me Some Young Donors Right NOW!

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Chances are, the average age of your donors is notably high. That’s how it is for almost every nonprofit on the planet. It’s a result mainly of the way the human brain works, often enhanced by economic and cultural forces.

It’s normal and natural. Even so, I’ll bet someone in your organization has cried:

Our old donors are dying!

Followed by an equally panicked cry of:

We’ve got to replace them with young donors!

Both of these cries are understandable. They’re even somewhat reasonable. But the whole thing goes off the rails when someone interprets our need to replace donors with young donors to mean:

Let’s focus on Millennials!

That’s a bad leap of logic. It might seem that a path to survival is to replace your dying 89-year-olds with healthy 29-year-olds.

But it’s not.

First, while it’s true elderly people are rather more likely to die soon than non-elderly people, a lot of folks in their 60s through 80s have a many good years ahead of them still. Don’t count them out yet! Life expectancy is longer than ever.

And here’s the more important part of the equation: The “young donors” you should be focusing on are people in their 50s — and in some cases, 40s. People who are approaching old age.

Those 29-year-olds often tempt us because they can expect more decades. And there are a lot of them — the Millennial generation is the largest generation in US history, outnumbering even the Boomers. But there are a few problems with them:

  • The media channels you use to reach your current older donors simply won’t reach many people in their 20s and 30s. They aren’t on the mailing lists, and they don’t consume the same media. It will take a heavy investment in time and money to discover the right lists and channels to find them in this fast-evolving media landscape.
  • The messaging that’s working to get and keep donors has been honed on your current audience of older people. There may be some serious re-learning to do before you find what works on the young.
  • If you managed to learn both of those things, you’d quickly notice that you have created two separate donor groups: Your old donors and your young donors — and they need separate marketing approaches. Congratulations: You’ve just doubled your fundraising budget, while at best only maintaining revenue. But you won’t maintain revenue, because…
  • Young donors have abysmal retention rates. Typically fewer than 10% ever give to an organization a second time. (You can expect 25% to 50% of older donors to give subsequent gifts.) Your acquisition investment has to be two to five times as much to end up with the same long-term revenue. For most organizations that would be unsustainable and irresponsible.
  • The most effective way to get younger donors is face-to-face (street) fundraising. The average age of these donors is decades younger than direct mail donors. But even here, it’s the donors in their 40s and 50s that make it all work. The retention rates of those younger is not strong enough to make it the program viable.

Those almost-old people in their 50s, on the other hand, give you some significant advantages:

  • Their average gifts are higher than those of older donors.
  • Their retention rates are good — not as high as those of the elderly, but far better than those of the young.
  • The combination of their higher giving and decent retention causes them to have a higher long-term value than older donors.
  • They respond well to similar messaging and channels as older donors — that is, you can add them to your program, no need to create a whole new track to acquire and cultivate them. (They’re similar, but not identical; you have to keep your eyes open!)
  • They are online-savvy, which allows you to take advantage of the lower costs and greater flexibility of digital fundraising.
  • There are a lot of them. They out number their elders.

If you think a focus on people in their 20s is an investment in the future, consider this: With retention rates that are a fraction of those of older donors, virtually zero donors in their 20s that you acquire today will still be with you 30 years from now when they mature into acceptably retaining donors.

Investing in Millennial donors today is the equivalent to converting your retirement nest-egg into $10 bills and leaving it in a pile on the beach.

Millennials will start turning 50 in 2030. Not that far off, really. That’s when focusing on Millennials will become an existential necessity for nonprofits.

For now, focus on the almost-old. They’re the ones with the passion — and the capacity — to take your organization to the next level!

Related posts:

Looking for help on reaching that important not-quite-elderly-yet demographic? Look into Moceanic’s Coaching+. We’ll work with you and help you create and execute a strategy that will build a solid future!


  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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