Reaching out to Millennials

One of the ideas I’ve pushed relentlessly on my blog is the notion that classical music is not dead. And I truly believe it—despite a wave of panicked stories that seem to rely on nothing more than conventional wisdom, many ensembles have reported record-breaking years in terms of fundraising and ticket sales. Sure, there are some groups that are having a rough go of it, but overall I think the arts, and classical music groups specifically, are in pretty good shape.

That said, there are some trends going on that we have to pay attention to, in order to keep our futures bright. For example, while many non-profits are reporting that while they are raising more money overall, there are some underlying patterns to the numbers that are concerning—such as the fact that more and more money is coming from fewer and fewer big donors. For years, arts groups have been operating under the “standard orthodoxy” that 80% of our organizations’ support comes from just 20% of the population. As time goes on, however, we’re finding ourselves in a new normal where 95% of our support is coming from just 5% of the public.

This is a problematic trend not just for the arts, but for all non-profits across the board… and people are starting to take notice. Dan Allenby, founder of the Alumni Giving Network and Assistant Vice President for Annual Giving at Boston University, has said that while focusing on a few donors with great wealth can be a successful short-term strategy, relying on too small a base can be problematic in the future:

Many think it’s [95/5] a more efficient way to raise money—focus your limited resources on the very big payoffs. It’s a short game, but at the same time if you do that at the expense of your base, you could have problems. Long term, it’s not sustainable. Eventually your pipeline will dry up.

So… how to build the pipeline, so that we can build up the number of supporters our organizations have? How can we ensure that our organizations will have a broad foundation of support, so that we won’t depend on an “angel supporter” coming to the rescue at the last minute?

Who can we turn to?

What about the Millennials?

I’d like to throw out five ideas about ways to engage this most-talked about, coveted of groups, which is made up of young adults born roughly between 1980 and 2000. To be clear, I don’t want to advocate that we go after Millennials at the expense of Generation X, the Baby Boomers or such—any sane strategy for maintaining a solid base of support requires that we keep engaging these groups.

But Millennials are the pipeline.  If we don’t engage them, arts organizations face a very dim future, indeed.

* * *

First, let me throw out some points to ponder. First, Millennials really do support causes. There is an ongoing perception that Millennials are completely self-absorbed… the ultimate “me” generation. This is patently false. According to the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, 73% of Millennials made a donation to a nonprofit in 2014. Yes, 73%. Clearly, Millennials do give… if you’re not seeing money or other support from them, it’s a symptom that your systems aren’t working, not that they’re not philanthropically inclined.

That said, Millennials have a more idiosyncratic, more holistic view of supporting a cause. The Millennial Impact Report goes on to suggest that today’s young people:

  • Engage with causes to help other people, not institutions.
  • Prefer to perform smaller actions before fully committing to a cause.
  • Are influenced by the decisions and behaviors of their peers.
  • Treat all their assets (time, money, network, etc.) as having equal value.

The implications are huge. If your organization relies on mass-generated emails, traditional print ads, or (gasp!) snail-mail solicitations, you’re probably out of luck. Millennials are far less connected to institutions, particularly large, legacy arts organizations, so organizations can’t rely on their brand’s luster to bring them in.

But, there are ways of engaging them:

1. Start Engaging Now. Now.  Study after study has shown you have to reach potential donors early. In higher ed, for example, numerous studies have shown that nearly every major, million dollar donor started giving to his or her alma mater within three years of graduation.  Similarly, we need to start engaging Millennials before they leave college.

It is critical to remember that Millennials may not realize how important contributions are, or fully realize all the ways they can get involved. Too often, they think—especially in regards to classical music—that the only donations that “count” are those made by big-buck donors… the modern-day equivalent of the Esterházy family. Arts organizations have to do more to connect how donations make their programs possible, and that all donations can make a difference.  Start this educational process early.

As you engage, keep your expectations realistic. At least early on, Millennials will most likely be making small gifts. Don’t disparage them! These help establish a pattern of giving, and establish a strong relationship between you. Remember that Millennials tend to “test the waters” with smaller donations before they dive in. Also, remember that there is a good chance that as Millennials marry and start families in a few years, they will be even harder to pin down. Do not take this as a sign of disinterest and write them off—maintaining a relationship with them will make it far easier to build deeper relations in the future when they have more time, attention, and money to give you.

Also, consider that Millennials can provide non-monetary forms of support, and are often very willing to do so. They have networks of their own—use them. They can volunteer talents such as making promo videos—use them.

Think of these things as long-range investments… they will pay off in the future.

2.  Use Those Social Networks.  Millennials report that peer recommendation is huge in determining whether or not they partake in an activity—this was a key finding of the 2014 Millennial Impact Report, but it also jibes with focus groups the Minnesota Orchestra conducted last summer.  Word of mouth is huge. So… if you want to engage Millennials, you have to engage their networks.  Sending out information via Facebook or similar networks is a crucial first step, but it can’t be the only step.  Many groups have opened up something like a “social media night,” often tied to a dress rehearsal.  At these events, people are invited specifically to blog, tweet, post or otherwise share impressions of the upcoming performance… essentially creating the buzz that is critical in attracting Millennials’ attention. Another option is to go to where Millenials are—for example, the Minnesota Orchestra has sent small ensembles out to local brew pubs or craft breweries for events called “Symphony, Suds, and Cider,” and Facebook lit up with reviews and photos of the event.

You can also do more systematic, strategic outreach to bloggers, groups, or key individuals directly, and have them advocate on your behalf.  The Millennial Impact Report reports that Millennials feel that working their networks on your behalf counts as a contribution.  Embrace this.  Treat this sharing of networks as a gift, and steward these relationships accordingly, as this can be a foundation for additional gifts in the future.

3. Allocate Resources to Meet Millennials Where They Are. Related to the above point, report after report has shown that young people are literally living their lives on social media. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 social media report has some eye-opening statistics to put things in perspective:

  • 52% of online adults over 18 now use two or more social media sites, a significant increase from 2013, when it stood at 42% of Internet users.
  • 71% of online adults use Facebook, 70% of which visit it every day.
  • For the first time, the share of Internet users with college educations using LinkedIn reached 50%.

More to the point, a recent survey has shown that 81% of Millennials prefer to get information about a cause or event from their peers via social media. Also, 55% of Millennials prefer to learn about non-profits via social media.

In light of these stats, it’s important that arts organizations look over their fundraising and marketing strategies and ask themselves if they are budgeting a proportionate amount of resources for social media. If 70% of your potential donors are online, are you spending 70% of your marketing budget for social media advertising and boosting Facebook content? I recognize this might be a bit extreme, but surely we can spend more than 1% of our marketing budgets or .FTE hours on social media. I could also add that while many grumble about how Facebook keeps nickel-and-diming us to get our content out in front of people, it really is one of the most cost-effective ways to advertise.

4. Create Content That Counts. Another important thought about social media. Too often, social media is simply thought of as another mechanism of getting a traditional ad or fundraising appeal into the public’s hand. No—this defeats the whole purpose of using social media, which is interactive in nature. Rather than simply reformatting your season mailer to fit onto your Facebook page, rethink your content so that you can actively engage your audience. Millennials have been clobbered with interactive “ads” that take the form of contests, games, movies since the day they were born… in this environment, your 2-dimmensional appeal to give to the Annual Fund won’t stand a chance.

At the end of the day, you have to earn the right to solicit through social media—you have to prove that you have something interesting to say. Your content strategy needs to be vibrant, diverse, and offer value to your audience, not just to you. Moreover, you need to create an emotional connection with your audience and make your big organization feel more intimate and human-scaled. This could be achieved through posting photos of audience members, sharing videos, linking to BuzzFeed quizzes, holding contests, or urging people to go to post-concert debriefs at local watering holes. Content isn’t cookie-cutter; you just need to figure out what resonates.

And I have to say… arts organizations should most definitely be able to come up with this kind of creative content… creativity is what we’re all about.

5. Crowdfunding. Crowdfunding—paying for projects through an accumulation of small gifts from a large number of donors—is a new and growing phenomena, and is a perfect vehicle for engaging Millennials. For one, Millennials like to contribute to manageable, clearly-defined projects where they feel they’re making a direct impact on the final product. The Minnesota Orchestra has had success with this fundraising model; in 2012 it turned to crowdfunding to commission a new work, Acadia, by composer Judd Greenstein. This was a novel approach, in that the usual way to fund a new commission has been to seek out a single, wealthy patron to cover all the associated costs. Instead, the Orchestra tried a “microcommissioning” approach, where interested folks could kick in $25 or so to help make it happen. It was a bold move…but it worked, and the resulting piece has been a huge success with critics and public alike.

Not only does crowdfunding demonstrate the difference a small gift can make, but the donor is able to connect with the recipient of the gift and the organization in a profound, meaningful way. When done well, the crowdfunding experience can not only bring in new donors, but create powerful emotional connections that make it easier to retain them, too.

* * *

Again, I believe that classical music organizations are by and large doing well right now. But for this current record of success to continue into the future, arts groups will need the backing of a new generation of supporters, too. And what better group to reach out to than Millennials?

We don’t have to chase these young adults to the exclusion of other groups, but by tweaking our existing marketing and fundraising strategies, we can engage them in ways that will insure that arts groups remain strong and relevant to our communities.



2 thoughts on “Reaching out to Millennials

  1. I have been a volunteer at the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern for nearly 20 years, and my experience there confirms what you say here. The Tavern gets grants, but never has been super successful with getting the really big corporate sponsors, which worked in their favor during the recession. Other arts organizations lost a large percentage of donations when corporate sponsorship dried up, but the Tavern’s smaller donors kept on giving, and the Tavern continued to run without laying anyone off.

    And as to millennials (I really hate all the generation labeling, by the way), half the volunteers (800-900 last year) are under 25 (high school and college mostly). Volunteering at performances teaches students what to expect at a show, and many come back as patrons with friends and dates. You can’t get much more “elitist” than Shakespeare, but we have a wide range of ages and races buying tickets and coming back.

    Involving people who are not wealthy is crucial.


  2. Pingback: The Wrong Way to Attract Audiences | Mask of the Flower Prince

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