Please Stop Ignoring Young Patrons

03 Jan 2017, by Paul in Engaging Your Audience

I’ll come right out and say it: the reason we have so few donors in their 40s and 50s now is because we ignored them in their 20s and 30s. I can say that with authority because I’m one of them.

And apparently, we’re going to make this mistake again. In the past two weeks, I’ve read three blog posts in which the writers state that it’s a mistake to invest time and money into acquiring new donors under the age of 40. Two primary reasons are typically cited:

  1. They don’t have the money
  2. They don’t respond to our requests

Once and for all, let’s take a look at these two assumptions (and I say assumptions because if they were based on fact then you would correct the strategies until you were successful):

Lack of money

Assuming you’re doing some kind of wealth screening or prospect research that would identify younger people who actually DO have significant gift capacity, then you’re right. With the significant expenses young people have today, they simply aren’t able to make the kind of major gift or top tier annual fund contribution as they might when they have raised their children, paid off their mortgage and student loans, and achieved a level of compensation that enables them to have money to give. But if you’re expecting the average young patron to have the same level of disposable income as older patrons, then the mistake is with your expectations.

The thing is, if you ignore them now, they have almost no reason to give to you when they do have the money. You need to lower the barrier of entry for young patrons and court them now, so that when they have more disposable income, you will have already established the relationship that persuades them to give more generously. There are lots of ways to do this: implement lower giving levels for young donors, allow them to earn donor benefits through volunteerism, and give them soft credit for bringing in new ticket buyers or subscribers from their network of friends. These are just a few we’ve used before, but contact us if you need more ideas.

You might think the the return on investment (ROI) on these donors won’t be as high, but that’s not necessarily true. You’ll spend less getting them and keeping them, which could make up for their low gift capacity. For example, you might raise more money from selling a $1000 gala ticket to a donor that costs you $200 to deliver [(1000-200)/200=4 or 400% ROI], but you’ll get a higher ROI from selling a $50 cocktail party ticket that costs you $5 [(50-5)/5=9 or 900% ROI]. And the higher ROI on the latter will produce higher, long-term returns because, presumably, younger donors can give for many more years than older donors.

Lack of response

First off, do you know why they aren’t responding? Have you ever asked them or surveyed others in their age bracket? Well we have, and here’s the situation. If they’re not responding because you’re asking too much from them, then see the ideas above. If, however, they’re not responding to what you’re offering for some other reason, then it’s one of two things, the medium or the message.

Wrong Medium

If they’re not responding to the annual appeal you mail to them, or the boilerplate email solicitation, then I’m not surprised. This generation lives and breathes online, and you have to meet your audience where they live and give them some hint that you know them and are speaking to them directly. Email is the best way, but don’t underestimate Facebook, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, and text messaging, which is growing at a very fast pace. We can help you set all of these up.

And don’t forget the “other” medium you have available to you: your performance space, both before and after the show. A private space in which they can gather with their peers for networking and a drink costs very little to the organization but will go far towards making young patrons feel welcomed. It also gives you a chance to meet them and ask them to get involved.

A side note: one thing I hear a lot is that young patrons don’t show up for these events or volunteer opportunities because they have children who can’t be left alone. That’s true, but it’s also true that many organizations offer some sort of supervised childcare specifically for those parents. Your Board will say that there are risks involved, but they can be mitigated by hiring a professional, creating a waiver, etc. Churches have been doing this forever, and if the Wegman’s supermarket chain can do it, so can you.

Wrong Message

Like I said above, this generation wants to feel like you’re speaking directly to them, so you have to customize each appeal to them directly… based on a show they’ve attended or a cause that matters to them. (Hint: they’re really supportive of educational outreach, so ask them to give to a fund that enables your group to offer after school classes or perform in local schools.)

Likewise, you’ve got to match the amount of your appeal to what they can actually afford. A long-shot amount like $5,000 might just put them off and make them feel inadequate. And we know that amounts like $20, $40, and $80 will have better results than $25, $50, and $100. As long as you allow a space on the form for them to enter an amount of their choosing, you won’t be limiting the amount they can give.

And finally…

I think one of the reasons these “don’t-waste-time-on-the-young” posts come up at the end of every year is that we’re grasping to find new donors to meet our end-of-year appeal expectations. But if you’ve waited until December to ask for their support, you’re already too late. Working this age group requires a specific plan and series of steps that begin the moment they buy their first ticket. With an integrated CRM like PatronManager, it’s possible to execute those steps automatically, with minimal time investment from staff. Naturally you’ll want to introduce the human element to them at special events or performances they attend, but the cost to develop these young patrons into donors is not as high as you might think. And obviously, you’ll get more from them by engaging with them than by ignoring them. Your future fundraising depends on getting them involved now, and with all the tools you have available, there’s no excuse to wait.

If you need help with strategies or marketing and development plans tailored to this group, just let us know.