21st Century Fundraising for Millennials

If schools don’t offer options for online giving, they’ll miss out on millennial donors—and those from other generations as well.

21st Century Fundraising for Millennials

AS MILLENNIALS BECOME the predominant population of workers and consumers, educational institutions are struggling to engage them as donors. People in their 20s and 30s simply do not respond to the traditional methods of fundraising—such as phone calls and mailed solicitations—that once were effective with their parents and grandparents. If that’s the case, how can business schools successfully reach this key audience? By meeting them on their own turf.

Millennials are among the most studied creatures on the planet, with initiatives like The Millennial Impact Project (www.themillennialimpact.com) devoted to determining what motivates this demographic. At GiveCampus, a social fundraising platform, we’ve also spent a great deal of time tracking the giving preferences of millennials. Through such research, we’ve learned that millennials overwhelmingly prefer to donate online and that their friends and social networks play key roles in influencing their philanthropic behavior. We’ve also learned that if millennials cannot easily donate to a cause or organization from their mobile devices, they are much less likely to donate at all.

Schools have been slow to respond to these realities, and they literally have paid the price: Despite the fact that the vast majority of millennials give to charity, more than 50 percent have never made charitable gifts to their alma maters.

While this may seem like a problem that schools can address at some point in the distant future, it actually is one of their most urgent strategic imperatives. Giving is not something that people start doing in their 50s and 60s; it is a habit that they develop, or don’t, in their 20s and 30s. Therefore, if schools don’t rapidly gain traction with millennials, they risk missing out on this generation’s philanthropy—forever. This would result in a dramatic decline in the number of donors reached and dollars raised in the decades ahead.


Some development officers resist shifting too many fundraising resources into digital, social, and mobile tools because they fear alienating older audiences. However, the data suggests that millennial behaviors and preferences have a tremendous influence on the behaviors and preferences of baby boomers and members of Generation X. It turns out that people between the ages of 40 and 70 often enjoy the same things that “the kids” like these days.

This dynamic has been seen in the context of consumer behavior, but it is also at work with respect to philanthropy. For instance, nearly half of all visitors to our platform are on mobile devices, and roughly one-third of them end up on the website after clicking on a friend’s post on Facebook or Twitter. And those visitors are not solely millennials—in fact, equal numbers of them come from other generations. In other words, baby boomers and Gen Xers are just as mobile and social as their millennial counterparts.

Institutions that respond to these trends are reaping great rewards. For instance, our surveys of schools using our platform consistently reveal that approximately half of the donors making gifts are either first-time donors, donors who do not routinely give to the school, or existing donors who now give more than they have in the past. This means that these schools are generating added value from their digital, social, and mobile fundraising efforts. Here are two examples:

• Last February, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, ran a 43-hour campaign that raised nearly US$2 million from more than 6,000 donors. Half of the donors were alumni who had graduated after 1990, and 122 were first-time donors to the college. Large numbers gave from mobile devices.

•In November, 67 schools—ranging from small primary and secondary schools to top research universities—raised $3 million through Giving Tuesday campaigns. That money came from more than 16,000 donors. Half were millennials, and a third were on mobile devices. In addition, 14 percent donated in response to a personal appeal that they received from a friend or peer via email or on social media.

Digital fundraising also works well for graduate and professional schools within the larger university. For example, the School of Law at St. John’s University in New York City has run an online campaign in each of the last two years aimed at funding a full-tuition scholarship for a student in financial need. Each year, the law school has surpassed its fundraising target with the support of hundreds of alumni. In the most recent campaign, support came from alumni and students from 50 different graduating classes dating back to the class of 1961.

Business schools definitely can profit from digital fundraising, as well. For details about two such efforts that used our platform, see “A Campaign to Love” and "A Fund for the GLOBE" in the accompanying sidebars.


As state support shrinks and more business schools look toward outside sources of revenue, it is clear that they must incorporate digital, social, and mobile tools into their fundraising strategies. Such tools resonate with everyone, but they are a prerequisite for effectively engaging millennials.

Of course, it takes more than an online strategy to engage millennials. To learn other ways to catch the attention of these donors, see “Six Ideas to Try” in the sidebar above. The key thing to remember is that millennials will be among the most important philanthropists of the 21st century—which means schools need to connect with them right now.

Kestrel Linder is CEO of GiveCampus, a social fundraising and engagement platform with offices in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, California.