Millennial DNA: 99+% Human

Millennial studying is the navel-gazing of our time. We spend crazy time doing it. Don’t take our word for it, ask the Google machine. A Google search of “Millennials and charity” returns 210,000 hits, while searching “Millennials and nonprofits” gets you a whopping 434,000. The reason for the interest is understandable. This group, born between 1981 and 2001, represents 75 million Americans. They are beginning to exert an influence on our culture and will do more so as time goes by, as “Generation Y,” as they’re sometimes called, assumes more positions of leadership in the next five to ten years.

But let’s be honest, the nonprofit world is less interested in broad cultural impact and is more focused on “engagement.” As in, how can we interact with this exceptional group of people to get them to engage with our nonprofits more, in terms of both time and money? Unfortunately, there is good reason for concern…

An ominously titled study, “Good Intentions, a Gap in Action” from the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, reports an all-time high among college students’ desire to do good. But the study also shows those same students’ actions are inconsistent with their aspirations. The number of college students engaging in volunteerism is actually the lowest of all the groups measured, surpassed by high school students, young adults and middle-aged people.

And because past is prologue, the report shows that many of these college slactivists aren’t going to volunteer as adults, either. Bad news, because many organizations use volunteerism as their foot-in-the-door technique that leads to future donor behavior.



In 2016 the DC-based polling company Gallup published a report titled, Millennials: How They Live and Work. Much like an anthropological study of some native aboriginal culture, the report asked the question, “Are Millennials really that different?” Their answer was a resounding yes – “profoundly so,” adding, “Millennials are changing the very will of the world. So, we too must change.”

Really? (insert eye roll and head shake) The report lists six ways Millennials are different in the workplace from homo sapiens from other generations:

  1. Millennials don't just work for a paycheck -- they want a purpose.

  2. Millennials are not pursuing job satisfaction -- they are pursuing development.

  3. Millennials don't want bosses -- they want coaches.

  4. Millennials don't want annual reviews -- they want ongoing conversations.

  5. Millennials don't want to fix their weaknesses -- they want to develop their strengths.

  6. “It's not just my job -- it's my life.”

As we were reading this list, we were struck by how well these six needs track with a theory of human motivation psychologists call “self-determination theory.” Economist Daniel Pink writes about this research and what it tells us about what people find to be meaningful in his 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

According to self-determination theory, three factors lead to better performance and satisfaction in all aspects of peoples’ lives – at work, at school, and at home. People achieve a sense of personal satisfaction when they have the opportunity to experience:

  1. Autonomy – being self-directed,

  2. Mastery – improving at something important, and

  3. Purpose – involvement in something meaningful beyond themselves.

Motivating for maximum performance begins with autonomy. “People need autonomy over what they do, (tasks) when they do it, (time) who they do it with, (team) and how they do it (technique).” When these conditions are met, people become engaged, and engagement leads to mastery, becoming better at something that matters. Finally, the opportunity to be involved in a greater good results in a “purpose motive,” which many people embrace as central to their lives.

If you look at the Gallup study, autonomy, mastery and purpose map almost exactly to what those Millennials say they want. That’s why we reject the idea that Millennials are “profoundly” different from Baby Boomers or Generation Xers. We’re much more alike than different regarding what we find to be motivating. Given, Millennials do have serious addictions to their phones, outsize senses of entitlement and a less than average capacity to forge strong personal connections. So, if the same things that motivate the rest of us motivate them, we may just have to get better at delivering it to them.

One example of great delivery is the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, affectionately known as THON. It is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. THON annually engages more than 16,000 student volunteers. The group generates awareness and raises funds for the fight against pediatric cancer, benefiting the Four Diamonds Pediatric Cancer Research Center at the Penn State College of Medicine. Since 1977, THON has raised $147 million in the fight to conquer childhood cancer, with $10 million raised in 2017 alone.

In the final analysis, Gallup was right, sort of. We do need to change, but we mostly need to get better at offering this audience exactly what it says it wants. Which is, fundamentally, not terribly different from other generations. THON delivers the three things that people find rewarding, and in large doses: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Take a good look at how they make it happen. THON’s value may go far beyond the fundraising they do. They may show us the path to the Millennial.