Social Media and the rise of the new philanthropists

By 9th May 2012, 80,058 people had donated £1,112,988 to the Justgiving page of Claire Squires, the tragic London Marathon runner. The outpouring of sympathy and gifts made to the Samaritans in her memory demonstrates how differently young donors engage with charities compared to previous generations, and the critical role social media plays in this.

In the 80s and 90s Fundraisers adapted pretty well to the Baby Boomers’ desire to have greater choice over how their gifts were spent. Tangible fundraising products linking gifts to clear impact were offered. The Boomers sponsored children in the Third World, sent goats to Africa, adopted Meerkats in wildlife parks.

But donors currently in their 20s and early 30s (the so-called Millennials or Generation Y) are different again. This is a generation that has been brought up to expect to have their views asked for and listened to. They too want to choose how their charitable donations are spent and see a tangible impact. But they are the ultimate individualists, suspicious of institutions (including charities), preferring to trust information received directly from their peer group or social media. They process information swiftly and in small pieces. 140 characters or less, in fact.

The social media the Millennials have created and so enthusiastically adopted defines them. Facebook facilitates and drives their love of living their lives in public online. This is what I’m doing, these are my Friends, this is what I’m interested in. Twitter enables instant sharing of thoughts, jokes, interests, but also gives these great individualists the chance to briefly create communities when they find a cause they believe in.

Surfing the Millennial wave

And it’s precisely these sudden, unpredicatable and uncontrollable cyber-causes which can be so powerful for charities.  Claire Squires’ Justgiving page started trending on Twitter just a few hours after her death. The vast majority of the 80,000 people who have donated won’t have known Claire or have previously supported the Samaritans. They were touched by her story, and perhaps were motivated by feeling part of a cause or group, however briefly. Come on guys, let’s get Claire’s page to over £1m was a common tweet. Social media brought the story to the Millennials, and gave a simple way of engaging with it – a few clicks on a laptop or text to donate.

My own charity,  Anthony Nolan, experienced this in June 2011. A 15 year old with terminal cancer, Alice Pyne, wrote a blog with a bucket list of things she wanted to do before she died. One of her wishes was for people to join stem cell registers around the world to provide potentially lifesaving transplant matches. Someone mis-read her blog, and tweeted that one of her wishes was to trend on Twitter. We noticed #alicebucketlist starting to trend globally on a Tuesday evening. Anthony Nolan’s Digital team began to tweet the online link for people to join the Anthony Nolan stem cell register to help Alice achieve one of her wishes.

Charlie Brooker tweeted about Alice that night. Next day, we emailed Charlie to ask if he’d do something else to help. In a couple of hours, he’d recorded an online appeal for young men (the priority group) to join the Register. It’s now had 45,000 views [warning – he does swear in it].

As a result of Alice trending on Twitter and Charlie’s appeal, 3,000 people joined the Anthony Nolan register in 36 hours, 1,767 of them young men aged 18-30. This is more then we usually recruit in a month. At least 1 of them has already been a match for a patient and donated potentially lifesaving stem cells.

So how do Fundraisers respond to the Millennials?

Fundraising and Digital Marketing teams need to work seamlessly together, Fundraisers understanding what content and calls to action work on social media, and Digital teams the need to harness interest to drive donations. We need to monitor social media pretty much 24/7 – Twitter trends don’t conveniently kick off during working hours. When an issue grabs the Millennials’ attention we have to be ready to respond immediately. This means making rapid, almost instant policy decisions about whether to get involved with a debate or development. Then sharing accessible, direct, engaging content – predominately video. They prefer pictures to words and content must be authentic. They’ll trust real life case studies; spokespeople talking, less so. Calls to action have to clearly show how they can make a difference and must be quick and easy for them to action online or via their phones.

Perhaps most interesting of all, we need to give them opportunities to be conspicuous philanthropists. They live their lives (or the online version of it) in an extraordinarily public way. They want to share with their networks that they’ve backed a cause, liked content, donated to a charity. This isn’t an ego trip – by publicly affiliating with or promoting a charity they’re enjoying being part of a cause or group. A critical part of that enjoyment is sharing it with their online networks. They can be enormously effective social media campaigners for charities, if we give them the right content to engage with, tweet and post about. Their catchphrase is, after all, Get Involved.

All of this poses a big challenge to Fundraising teams. Although small charities struggle with resource and brand awareness, they can benefit from having quick decision-making processes. The big charities, whilst having the resource, may find the instant and flexible response needed to harness the power of social media more challenging. The Millennials are in a hurry. They don’t have time for us to get three layers of sign-off or to form a working group to discuss how to respond to an issue.

But if charities can show younger donors how they can have a direct impact on an issue, they can be incredibly effective. The opportunity is out there – it’s up to us as Fundraisers to adapt it.  Get involved.

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