Should you listen to your board when they start recommending that you reach out to younger donor audiences?
Take it from someone who is guilty of having been born in the 80s: millennial donors don’t matter.
I see the same thing over and over in nonprofit fundraising. Panicked professionals whispering behind closed doors, “all of our donors are old and they are all going to die!”
True, the average life expectancy of an American male is 76. And from this everyone seems to have concluded that their organization should focus on younger donors who can stick around longer. And then nonprofits spend huge amounts of time going to flashy conference presentations on “reaching the millennial donor.” They set up junior boards that cost more in time and resources than they bring into the organization. The actual boards spend half their time asking each other how to bring more young people into the organization.
Is all this angst based in anything meaningful? No.
THE TRUTH ABOUT LIFE EXPECTANCY
At least, the anxiety is not based in anything that your nonprofit can actually control.
Will younger people live longer than older people? Sure. But does that mean that younger donors are important targets for fundraisers today? No—quite the opposite!
If you are going to target a demographic for fundraising, why would you choose a demographic that is known for giving away less money than those that are known to give more?
“But the old donors are all dying!” they say.
Are they? The truth is much more complicated.
Average life expectancy is a misleading figure because it accounts for deaths that occur all along life’s trajectory. From tragic accidents involving children, to suicides amongst the middle aged, to those who die of heart attacks in their 50s.
The trouble with the numbers is that if you are alive today and are in your 60s, 70s, or 80s, you’ve already survived those particular threats. So your life expectancy isn’t 76 if you are a male who is 65 or 75. (Although if it was, it could make for some dramatic and somber 76th birthday parties!)
As it turns out, the life expectancy of a 65-year-old male is 83 and 86 for females. And it goes up from there.
If a donor is 75 today, that donor’s life expectancy is 86 if male and 88 if female.
If a donor is 80 today, that donor’s life expectancy is 87 if male and 89 if female.
That’s many more years of giving!
Now for the important part.
Check your own numbers at your nonprofit: what’s the average number of years a donor sticks around before they stop giving? It’s probably 2-5 years if you are a typical group. That means that even if your average donor is 75 years old, you don’t really have an age problem in your donor base: chances are that your current 75-year-old donor will stop giving to your organization before he dies.
But what about major donors, you say? They bring in the most revenue and are more loyal on average. What happens when they die?
If you are overly reliant on a small handful of aging funders for the majority of your revenue, you may indeed have a problem with the lack of diversity in your funding sources. But that lack of diversity in funding sources would still be there if you were overly reliant on a small handful of small donors whose average age was 32. Nothing guarantees that young people won’t change their mind and choose to support other causes—in fact they may be more likely to do so than older donors.
It is also important to note that there’s a high correlation between wealth and longer-than-average lifespans. The wealthiest 1% of Americans live an eye-popping 10-15 years longer on average than the least well-off 1%. That’s why you can now find whole companies dedicated to pitching discounted life insurance policies to people above certain incomes.
There’s even some evidence to suggest that altruistic behaviors like donating to nonprofits increase average lifespan as well.
THE EXCLUDED MIDDLE
But the biggest problem with worrying about the passing of your oldest donors is the excluded middle option. There is a frequently overlooked demographic between your rapidly aging donors and millennial “prospects.”
If you want to access another cohort of people with both the means and the inclination to support you, you want to replace your donors in their 80s and 90s with donors in their 60s and 70s. The “young tech wealth” that I so often hear floated in brainstorming sessions is a delusion and a distraction.
America loves youth to an irrational degree, it’s true (see: Buttigieg, Pete). But you can be smarter. The next time someone asks you about millennial donors, ask them if they know what percentage of the total wealth in America that generation owns.
It’s 3%. The Baby Boomers? 57%. Case closed.