The conundrum of charitable giving among young people in tech Melanie Baker July 23, 2015 Columns, Ecosystem, Featured, M-Theory In the past few weeks I’ve been approached several times regarding the same topic. It’s all about the Benjamins (or, in Canada, the Bordens, I guess). How do we fundraise more/better here in Waterloo Region? People don’t seem to be giving as much. How do we engage young people, especially tech folks? I’m not sure why people think I have the answers, but I have some thoughts. Apparently, so does Dan Herman. I was forwarded this excellent piece of his a few days ago, which covers some of what I’ve been also been considering. One of the conversations I had compared the issue of charitable giving to that of engaging young people in supporting the arts. K-W Symphony, Stratford Festival, etc. aren’t exactly packed with millennials. Though arts organizations aren’t resting on their laurels on that front, it’s not an easy conundrum. One wonders how these organizations are going to do in 20 to 30 years when the boomers aren’t around anymore. But then, when have the arts not had to struggle on some front? The same conundrum exists with charitable giving, whether it’s for straight-up charities like the Cancer Society, or other important organizations that serve the community, like the Kitchener Public Library. There’s a moneyed cohort in the area that’s at all the events, big and small, and are relied on for their generosity. (Many thanks.) And plenty of the philanthropy in this area does come from money made in tech. But that cohort isn’t 20-somethings, either. Those relationships need to be developed with the next generation, too. But again, you can only go to the well so often. Causes need regular folks to donate as well. If you have a broader base of donors, you don’t need to lean so much on one group. (But different groups do need to be approached and marketed to differently.) When we’re young, most of us don’t tend to focus on long-term grownup stuff. If you’re smart you get started on things like RRSPs as early as you’re able, but most young people don’t go to parties and discuss mutual funds . . . or philanthropy. Unless it’s a cause that already affects you directly, you don’t tend to focus on it during your invincible youth. If you’re doing a startup, your financial attention is more likely focused on things like burn rates and term sheets. Kudos to parents who instil the idea of giving back when their kids are small. Like any habit, you’re more likely to keep it up if you begin when young. Items like the Moonjar are a great way to put those lessons into action. Perhaps the younger techies will start giving more as they get older and become more established. I know I did. But perhaps they’re already engaged to some degree in other ways and we’re just not seeing it as much. Millennials tend to be hands-on, so while they might not be giving as much money, they might be showing up more, donating sweat equity for now. As I briefly mentioned, we tend to engage with causes that affect us directly. Your best friend has Lyme Disease – you set up a fundraiser. Your aunt has ALS – you collect pledges and go on the walk. Your dad died of leukemia – you donate every year. Less tragically focused, you’re also more likely to donate to the university you actually attended (as Ted Livingston demonstrated), for example. If you’re fortunate enough not to be familiar with tragedy (yet), issues like those can seem unfamiliar and far away. Again, when you’re young and feeling invincible, it’s hard to relate to these causes. Another consideration is that the only person who understands your relationship to your money is you. How much you actually have, how comfortable you are sharing it, your background with it, how stable you feel financially, how much you consider reasonable donations to be. And again, if you’ve poured blood, sweat, and tears into building a company (or just a career), it seems reasonable to feel like you earned that money, and not be eager to give it away so quickly. But at the same time, you didn’t do it alone, and it’s reasonable to expect people to support the community that supports them. (Do people just get that? Is it something we need to teach in school? Via mentors?) We can look on and make judgments about who’s giving how much, where, and for what reasons, but ultimately we don’t know the full picture for anyone except ourselves. Some donors very deliberately do not give publicly. Perhaps ironically, tech itself has made it harder to give in some ways. There are more platforms to enable people to ask for money, and more online channels to amplify the requests. Yes, being able to click a button and enter credit card info lowers the barrier to giving. But a Facebook feed regularly inundated with Indiegogo, Kickstarter, charity pledging, fundraising events, etc. can easily lead to both donor and decision fatigue. Because so much of our lives and interactions are online, “give local” can become irrelevant. Growing up digital means many people’s relationships are global, so contributing to a friend’s crowdfunding campaign in Austin or Australia may seem as normal as giving to the Food Bank of Waterloo Region. It may also mean, again, that people are giving; we just don’t see it because it’s not “here.” And let’s not forget plain, old human nature. Someone has to go first. We are inclined to do what our friends are doing. If we can do it together, even better. Is that the secret? Target the influencers and “alpha” friends? There’s a reason a lot of corporate fundraising involves teams; it can ignite competition, which can encourage people to do even more. (Though that strategy will quickly alienate introverts and some others.) We also can’t forget cool factor. Things that engage us, interest us, make us look good. Shallow? Again: human nature. We’re not all glowing altruists, so we have to work with what we have. And I don’t think it’s wrong to expect something. Whether it’s getting something back, seeing results, having fun, etc. Blood donors in Sweden get texted when their blood saves lives. When we contribute to a Kickstarter campaign we expect to get the game or gadget. When we donate to rebuild Haven House, we expect to see a bigger building. Interestingly, it’s different for some of the biggest causes. Maybe we’ll eventually see new cancer treatments from our donations, but it’s certainly a long game, mainly hope-based. At the same time, those are the causes most likely to affect us personally, and a certain social expectation has developed around them. I don’t have the answers, just some ideas. I’m happy to help organize events, and I have my own list of causes I support. One thought I did have that might be useful: if we’re wondering why the tech kids these days don’t support philanthropy as much, perhaps we could just . . . ask them? Photo: Anti Apathy sign outside Institute of Fundraising National Convention 2010 by Howard Lake is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.