I got an Outlook invite to a “Millennial Pilot Project Brainstorming Session” once. For all the time spent stereotyping this generation, you’d think they wouldn’t have tried to cram so many buzzwords into one subject line; millennials are, after all, the post-Don-Drapers, the ones who see through the pandering, right?
“Millennial? Ooh, that’s me!”
“Pilot? First of its kind? Hella cool.”
“Project? I love projects — short-term commitment.”
“Brainstorming! I am a brain-hurricane.”
“Sessions are so much better than meetings.”
You get where I’m going, fundraisers? Our industry plays heavily in the digital space. We need young minds and social media savvy to be successful. But that doesn’t mean we’re hiring extraterrestrials to do it.
Now, in fairness, the project itself turned out to be fairly exciting, but it birthed this strange dichotomy in the organization where every time something having to do with social media, Internet, cell phones or the word “innovation” came up, those of us who likely still got carded at bars were looked at to speak on behalf of our generation.
It feels good to be solicited for your opinion, but by speaking and self-identifying as “one of those millennials,” you implicitly accept the limitations of your generation as well as the benefits. Fundraising has to cut past assumptions to be successful at the internal level before it can do the same in the community.
1. You’re othering
In marketing and fundraising, donor stereotypes and demographics are kind of your thing. You rely on certain behaviors that are, to a large extent, fairly dependable to do your job better.
In the workplace, though, generational stereotypes can lead to the “halo effect,” where casting someone as a millennial automatically imbues them with social passion and self-absorption.
Once you systematically begin to stratify people on your team by generational characteristics, you lose sight of some of their other unique qualities, and you make them feel like their purpose is to act their age — and that’s something every young professional is trying to overcome.
There’s no way around it: Without a conscientious organizational culture to support new ideas, growth, development and failing forward, emphasizing youth will almost inevitably be emphasizing naiveté and inexperience. Nonprofits and fundraising organizations often have experimentation in their DNA to figure out how to be leaner and more impactful. Make sure the culture lets employees know they have a soft place to fall.
For example, a specific Gen-Yer’s inquisitive nature could lead to lots of questioning, which can at times feel like you’re being challenged. An “othering” workplace would interpret that as the “know-it-all mentality” of “this generation.”
2. You’re simplifying
Because millennial engagement is such a hot topic, and because companies are beginning to realize what a new generation means for stakeholders, future donors and today’s employees, they’re reacting quickly.
I’ve encountered a sense of desperation in some conversations. There are panic-stricken faces from seasoned professionals: “How do we engage the millennials?”
With hopeful eyes, they look at the millennials, who return a face that can only be described with an emoji.
Objectively, millennials are the most connected generation yet, consuming information nearly constantly. They know what’s going on in the world, and they have opinions about it. With that, however, comes a more nuanced understanding that the more they know, the less likely they are to generalize.
Millennials don’t want economic or ideological imperialism. They know that feminism isn’t a subversive term invented by Betty Friedan. They know that Obama and Reagan have things in common. They are aware of differences, they understand them, and they tolerate and appreciate them.
With that kind of mentality, the only thing you can do with millennials is be honest. Skip the inflated language and buzzword soup — serve them up a main course of medium-rare filet, a prime cut easy to digest (unless, of course, they’re vegan). This is scary for fundraisers, because it’s hard to talk about the nitty-gritty issues without conveying a sense of hopelessness. But spending time finessing the message and maintaining transparency will help you grow this stakeholder group and raise more money long-term.
3. You’re aging down
It’s hard, and I mean hard, to be young and idealistic starting out your career. You have a million and one dreams, and the Internet tells you that for a small fee, you can probably even make them come true.
You want to go in and change an organization. The paycheck isn’t enough to keep you feeling like you’re doing a good job. You can excel, you can be precocious, you can introduce technology — but then they realize your super-secret millennial superpowers and, regardless of your skills, your identifier is your age.
Suddenly a quality that isn’t even legally allowed to be a factor in hiring (as long as you’re over 18) is your blessing and your curse.
Managers, hear me on this: Millennials are painfully aware of what people have been told to think if they were born c. 1985. The last thing they want is to feel like a number, an age, or a range of years.
The best advice: Treat young employees like professionals. Help them grow and pursue their careers. Fundraise with open leadership, hear them out on new ideas, and don’t be threatened by apparent disagreement — friction is what sparks creative ignition. This will keep them green, and you need that kind of energy in the high-input, high-stakes world of fundraising.