Millennials Without a Cause: How Can Arts Organizations Engage This Demographic?

We're big fans of the HBO series Silicon Valley, the spot-on portrayal of the current dot-com gold rush madness. In a recent episode, the region's foremost venture capitalists wine and dine the main characters, a handful of geeky programmers who are looking for start-up funding. If all goes well, these nerdy 22-year olds will become very rich very quickly. (No spoiler alerts here, by the way.)

This got us wondering. All things being equal, what precisely is the difference between a 22-year old with $5 million dollars and, say, a 55-year old with $10 million dollars? The answer, at least from a philanthropic perspective, is, well, $5 million dollars.

In other words, between Silicon Valley millennials and those who've inherited their fortunes—according to the Atlantic, most rich Millennials have one thing in common: rich parents—there's a pool of individuals who, with the proper coaxing and attention, can turn into big-time donors. 

How do arts organizations reach them? It's one of the most challenging questions facing fundraisers today.

Let's look at why this demographic is so ripe for the picking. It's clear that many millennials, having grown up on social media, are acutely aware of the problems facing society. Furthermore, millennials aren't immune to the friendly competition that we see among older philanthropists who want to show the world that they're more generous than their friends. (It's good for the brand.)

This brings us to the challenges arts organizations face in reaching out to this demographic. A term we'll be coming back to quite a bit in the future in this space is "effective altruism." It's the idea that your philanthropic dollars should go to a cause that generates positive and immediate results. Bill Gates notoriously asked why anyone would donate money to build a new museum wing rather than to prevent illnesses that can lead to blindness. With idealistic millennials concerned with issues like climate change, global poverty and AIDS, arts organizations have an uphill battle in terms of convincing them that, say, donating to a local dance troupe will turn the dial.

Then there's the problem of what we'll inelegantly call "Smartphone ADD." Perhaps you've experienced it yourself. You're driving in your car, listening to your music list, and feel the need to skip every song after a few seconds. The proliferation of technology has accentuated our inability to focus, and arts organizations need to keep millennials engaged—no small feat given the countless causes vying for their attention.

So, to summarize, the two biggest challenges to engaging millennials are the need to convince them of the worthiness of the cause and simultaneously engaging them, at least the short term. How are arts organizations addressing these challenges? This piece in Crain's New York provides some examples.

One approach, employed by the Guggenheim Museum, is empowering millennials and giving them decision-making authority. Its Young Collectors Council is invited to join the committee for twice-yearly meetings to vote on the works of art the museum should buy for its collection. The number of Young Collectors Council members has jumped over 50 percent to 374 in the past two years, Guggenheim executives said. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, meanwhile, started a group eight years ago for patrons in their 30s. It now has 300 members to whom it offers special performances and events.

The bottom line? Millennials aren't your grandfather's donors. Or, to put it a bit more eloquently, we'll turn to Noreen Springstead, executive director of Manhattan-based WhyHunger, a 40-year-old advocacy nonprofit. "The millennials expect engagement from their charities, like how we are going to collaborate together to create something new," Springstead said. "Our older donors are more like, 'I'll write you a check and get a tax receipt for it.'"