Generation Z & The Social Sector: Embrace Them Now For Growth

This month, I’ve been gathering old towels and cat toys in preparation for an upcoming trip to Nevins Farm with my younger stepdaughter.  Our family adopted an older cat from their shelter in August, and my stepdaughter wants to give back by making a donation of both goods and money from the philanthropy portion of her allowance.  Simultaneously, my teenage stepdaughter has been campaigning for our family to switch to reusable grocery bags. She already talked us into installing a water saving toilet kit, and for those of you who follow my blog you know she is boycotting a once loved clothing retailer to protest their environmental practices.  While I would like to think that my stepdaughters are uniquely empathetic children who want to make the world a better place, they are not at all an anomaly in Generation Z.

Gen Z is more aware of social and environmental issues than previous generations.  This is a direct result of the ease of access to information that they have experienced growing up as digital natives.  Sparks & Honey report that 78% are concerned about world hunger, 77% are concerned about children dying around the world from preventable diseases, and 76% are concerned about human impact on the planet.   Additionally, a national study by the Staff of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA noted that more than two-thirds believe that the federal government should do more to address global climate change.  In their book “Generation Z Goes to College”, Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace cite research that states “nearly one-third of Generation Z students have already made lifestyle changes to support the environment, and more than 40 percent plan to ‘go green’”.

Molly Yuska, founder of Project Giving Kids, a nonprofit that connects busy youth and families to age-appropriate service activities through a unique online experience, recognized the innate desire that Gen Z has to make a difference when she first created the organization back in 2012.  Molly states “Kids have an innate desire to good. We now know that empathy is hardwired. By engaging kids in service in the early stages of their development, their ‘empathy muscles’ have the chance to be used in a manner that naturally orients them in a different, broader way to the world around them. The resulting awareness, and the ability to personally identify with the needs of others, is a powerful human motivator.”  By engaging Gen Z now, nonprofits are able to form early relationships, jump-start the donor lifecycle process and benefit from the cumulative impact over time in ways that were not previously possible.

One thing Gen Z-ers do not have is patience.  They have a much broader worldview than previous generations and they are eager to make a difference now.  Recently, I spoke with Jason Haber, author of the soon-to-be-released book “The Business of Good” which explores the strong growth of social entrepreneurship.  He explained that the old model of thinking was to start off with a more self-centric view of the world.  The goal was to do good for yourself in terms of going to the right schools so you could get a good job and have a productive career.  Then, eventually, if you did well you could think about doing good for others in the sense of giving back through philanthropy and volunteer work.  However, as Jason explains, “today’s youth don’t wait for anything. If they want a car, they get one NOW with Uber.  If they want to watch a show, they watch it NOW online. Why wait to change the world?  Gen Z has blown up the old model.  The idea of waiting is an anathema.  They would never dream of waiting.”

While Generation Z may not be a primary target for most nonprofits today, nearly all stand to benefit from tapping into the momentum that this cohort can bring to a cause.  Even with limited budgets (although at $44 million in estimated spending power and with 9 in 10 giving money to charity they are having some financial impact) there are ways to reach Gen Z and benefit from their desire to make a difference. Specifically:

1. Tap into their ability to promote causes and raise awareness. This is a generation that is very socially connected.  According to the Pew Research Center nearly three-quarters of teens have access to a smartphone, and 71% use more than one social network site.  In addition, Gen Z has access to crowdsourcing platforms that weren’t available when older generations were the same age.  The internet is full of stories of Gen Z raising money and awareness for causes they believe in, such as the 13 year-old who raised over $30,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network, or the California teen who turned recycling into over $34,000 for various charities.

2. Partner with an organization such as Project Giving Kids that can help you reach a younger audience. Project Giving Kids connects nonprofits to the Gen Z audience through a youth-friendly, interactive website showcasing tangible ways that users can contribute.  As Founder Molly Yuska puts it “Whether on-site, off-site, or through some creative new way they have yet to think of, every nonprofit can find a way to tap into the energy of this demographic and leverage it to further their mission. Project Giving Kids makes it easy for nonprofits to join a platform and a movement that can facilitate and streamline these powerful connections. Organizations benefit from the expertise of the PGK team in reaching this specific audience, while getting their names in front of people who might not otherwise ever hit their own websites.”

3. Consider broadening your digital reach by integrating Instagram or, for the more adventurous, Snapchat. While Gen Z is on multiple social sites, the majority consider Instagram their “most important”.  Look for ways to connect to Gen Z and promote engagement via interesting photographs or facts that might catch their attention.  For example, one Gen Z student I connected with recently was able to cite that “25 gallons of water are wasted every 5 minutes in the shower”.  This is the kind of easy to digest snippet that resonates with Gen Z and makes them think.  More daring nonprofits who want to experiment where the teens are at should try Snapchat – one of the fastest growing platforms among Gen Z – as did with this fun Valentines Day story.

In summary, savvy nonprofits will begin tapping into the momentum of Generation Z today.  While they may not be a primary source of fundraising or volunteer time, they can help promote your cause and broaden your reach.  More importantly, they are the future and engaging with them early will pay dividends over time.