6 Actionable Steps Your Nonprofit Can Take To Engage Gen Z

There’s a lot out there about Gen Z and it’s all overwhelming. That their communication, donation, and content consumption patterns are totally different from previous generations, and how Gen Z, Millennials, and younger generations have eclipsed baby boomers and now make up more than half the US population

“A typical Gen Zer is a self-driver who deeply cares about others, strives for a diverse community, is highly collaborative and social, values flexibility, relevance, authenticity and non-hierarchical leadership, and, while dismayed about inherited issues like climate change, has a pragmatic attitude about the work that has to be done to address those issues.” – Roberta Katz, a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), in her interview with Stanford News.
Clearly, this is a group of people with whom your nonprofit needs to nurture a relationship. But you may not be 100% sure how to speak their language, not to mention your organization is small, resources are tight, and internal bandwidth is limited.

The thing is, connecting doesn’t strictly mean speaking the same language—it’s about sharing the same values. You’ve already got wanting to better the world in common with Gen Z and Millennials, so reaching them doesn’t necessarily mean a huge investment or 180-degree pivot. But it does involve shifting your approach (and, in some cases, mindset) on how best to involve the next generation of donor, volunteer, and activist partners.

6 Steps Your Organization Can Take to Engage Gen Z

Gen Z has a nose for inauthenticity, so transparency is key when focusing on building relationships. We chatted with nonprofit expert Stephanie Borne, Digital Transformation, Strategic Marketing and Innovation Advisor/Change and Inclusivity Champion, who explained why it’s essential to leave your own generational worldview at the door.
“They have lived experience on social wellbeing, climate change, social unrest. They’re extremely savvy and mature and have very little faith and trust in brands or politicians. This makes them not very open to brands manipulating their social world, digital world. For example, if you put out an advert or TikTok created by adults, they’re going to look at it and think, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. What are you doing in my space? But if you ask them to do it for you, then that’s different.”
Number 1

Ask them.

Really. It might seem awkward, but by literally having a conversation and asking younger generations how they’d like to connect and join you, you’re setting an all-important tone of collaboration. So, where do you start? Says Stephanie Borne:

“There’s always value in proximity. There are schools and youth clubs around you that you can approach. You’ll find young people are sensitive to the issues you’re trying to address. As long as you let them drive. For example, you might ask, ‘Would you like to do something about the fact that people in your community can’t afford a meal every day?” Then let them choose how they’re going to address the situation. They may come up with a TikTok challenge. Or they may come up with something with some live events or fundraisers.“

If you’re worried that these young people are more interested in communicating through their devices, think again. States Stanford’s Roberta Katz.

“Our biggest surprise came in response to this interview question: “What type of communication do you like best?” We expected the interviewees to respond with their favorite type of digital communication – e.g., text, email, chat group, DM, FaceTime, Skype, etc. – but instead nearly every single person said their favorite form of communication was “in person.”

Number 2

Let Gen Z take the wheel.

In a fascinating interview with Howard Lake of UK Fundraising, Jahkini Bisselink, Gen Z expert at Whetston Strategic, shed light on the process of involving younger generations:

“As activists they already see themselves as part of the decision-making process. Businesses and charities should expect that and make space for their voice and contributions. Businesses and charities should also recognise that knowledge does not just include education but also experience. We are experts in being young. Organisations need to give Gen Z the tools to become an equal discussion partner – which is true of any minority group as well.”

This collaboration could be anything (and everything), including youth-led advisory boards, volunteer programs, and one-off projects. For more ideas on how to involve young people in your organization, review this article by Sami Adler on Global Giving. Or, you can just hire them.

Number 3

Help them relate to your cause.

We know that Gen Z is comprised of activists interested in issues like social justice and climate action. But what if your nonprofit isn’t entirely focused on those issues? Rethink how you frame your organization’s message. By this, we don’t mean dissemble—instead, follow SalesForce.org’s Sterrin Bird’s advice:

“If you’re a cancer research foundation or a hospital network, you don’t need to pivot to working on antiracism or climate action. But if you dive deep, I bet you can find a shared value that fulfills young people’s desire for a better world. Maybe that message is ‘Everyone has the right to good health care.”

Inform them about your cause and what you are doing to create positive change. In addition to online outreach, a fantastic way to do this is to invite them to your events, actions, or open days. Remember, these are young people who are activists and prefer in-person communication—they will want to know how they can help!

Number 4

Meet them where they are.

Remember that the natural habitat of Gen Z and Millennials is online—these are people used to tapping to donate or buy right from within whatever social media platform they are using. Therefore, having a mobile-first strategy is more important than ever. When it comes to outreach, social media and text are the way to go. If you’re unsure where your Gen Zers, recall our first point and ask them! When you do post, just remember to tailor content to the audience—the same message and imagery you use for older donor groups on email is not going to resonate with Gen Z and their cohorts on Instagram.

Another approach is to keep an eye out for local events, festivals or competitions attracting Gen Zers and ask the organizers how you can get involved to inform, educate, and engage.

Number 5

Offer giving as a regular practice.

Giving isn’t (and shouldn’t be) just about money—it can also be about time and expertise. No matter how people give, it’s essential to communicate regulalry with your new supporters! They’ll want to know how their efforts are furthering your cause.

As far as monetary contributions, large annual or quarterly donations are not going to appeal to this group. Instead, introduce a subscription model. Says Ray Gary in his article on NonProfit Pro

“As Millennials and Gen Zers begin to take center stage in philanthropy, I see a trend toward everyday giving. Everyday giving refers to donating smaller, more regular donations to causes versus the one-time-a-year, larger donation. These next-gen philanthropists are focused on creating change in the causes they care most about that have a real-time impact.”

Number 6

Demonstrate impact.

Micro-giving is one half of the equation—the other is to fully communicate the difference their involvement will make. Haskel Canagarajah, Donor Relations Coordinator for Penn State THON, the world’s largest student-run philanthropy, writes:

“While in previous generations, it may have been common to see a large portfolio of nonprofits supported by one individual, it appears that younger donors want to avidly support a smaller number of causes with greater effort. As a result, less transactional behavior is exhibited, which can be defined as the interaction between the donor and the nonprofit being strictly monetary based. Instead, younger donors expect to develop long-term relationships with the nonprofits they support. This results in three specific shifts to be aware of: younger donors perform more initial research before donating, they expect to feel part of a community when engaging with a nonprofit, and they increasingly seek volunteer opportunities.…For nonprofits, this carries two recommendations: organizations need to have a tightly controlled and consistent brand and they need to place priority on displaying their impact through a multi-channel approach.”

Change, though kind of scary, is also exciting and an opportunity to grow. It opens new doors and pathways to a future we may not have envisioned. As Gen Z and Millennials move to the forefront and lead us forward, remember (or read for the first time) the wise words of the great Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” The risk of change is good—don’t wait for the right moment or a flood of resources. Embrace it!

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