Fundraising Myth #3: Opportunities to volunteer are a guaranteed Millennial magnet

This past weekend was one of my favorites of the year as the Anabaptist community here in my neck of the woods gathered for the Pennsylvania Relief Sale. The annual event supports Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in its work to share God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice. Hundreds of volunteers put in thousands of hours over twelve months to make the sale a success.


The 2-day event is a marvel of cooperation among churches and denominational sub-groups that barely communicate the rest of the year. That’s the good news.

On a sorrier note, however, the Pennsylvania Relief Sale is a microcosm of the widening generational gap within the volunteer workforces of most faith-based nonprofits.

I didn’t count, but it’s a safe guess that Boomers and other older volunteers out-numbered Millennials by at least 3 to 1. Back out Amish and Old Order Mennonite youth, and the ratio skewed even further in the direction of gray hairs. Despite volunteer opportunities galore, young adults aren’t clamoring to get on board with the Pennsylvania Relief Sale, be that with time, talent, or treasure.

And that brings me to another of the myths and silly tales that inform the way board members, CEOs, and development staff think about and approach fundraising.


You’ve likely heard that the way to Millennials’ hearts and bank accounts is through a robust volunteer program. Get their hands, we’re told, and their hearts will follow, guaranteed. But if it were that simple a cause and effect, the Pennsylvania Relief Sale and other volunteer-driven charities would be overrun with youthful workers and donors – which they’re not.

So what’s the problem?

According to the Case Foundation-sponsored 2013 Millennial Impact Report, it’s that we’ve got things backward. We jump immediately to how Millennials can get involved, when what they really want to know is why.

Young adults, the Impact Report tells us, “first support causes they are passionate about (rather than institutions), so it’s up to organizations to inspire them and show them that their support can make a tangible difference on the wider issue.”

In other words, it’s not our lengthy lists of volunteer opportunities that inspire Millennials to show up. The Y Generation is all about the cause.

And that can be a hard pill for cash-worried CEOs and board members to swallow.

With the bottom line on the line, giving “air time” to anything other than our work and our goals doesn’t feel right. Yet it’s exactly what we must do if we hope to attract the younger set. Or any set, for that matter.

Truth be told, Boomers and GenXers (Millennials’ older sibs) aren’t the organizational lemmings we’ve assumed. People of all ages want their gifts of time and money to count for more than meeting this year’s budget or advancing organizational goals.

Myth-busters lead with the big picture – the larger cause and then invite participation. That’s what gets Millennials to show up, and most other folks as well.

Check out Fundraising Myths 1 and 2, here and here.


  1. dorothy gish says:

    The advertisements that I saw emphasized the quilts and food [neither is likely to generate a lot of millennial interest] rather than relief.

    • I did see a lot of young adults and families at the Relief Sale as attenders. Just not as volunteers. It seems they enjoy the food and the fun of the event, but not the work.

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