Philanthropy under 40 – Social causes evolve to tap the passion of Millennials

After graduating from the LSU Honors College in May, Opelousas native Tiffany Lemon thought nothing of taking a year off to serve the community before entering graduate school to pursue a degree in epidemiology. Her future looked irrepressibly bright; while at LSU, her summer internships included researching HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis at the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), MIT and Harvard, and the Pasteur Institute in France—opportunities that had confirmed her passion for studying and combating complex diseases. But for now, she wanted to give back to a small, depressed community outside the boundaries of LSU. She applied to the Delta Service Corps, an AmeriCorps program based in Baton Rouge, and began full-time service in September working with low-income elementary students at the Gardere Community Christian School.

“The temptation for a year of service was nearly overwhelming,” says Lemon, 23. “I wanted to serve because I just really love people. Now I feel like, when I work as an epidemiologist studying communities, I’m going to really think about the children and the families that are behind those numbers.”

Lemon isn’t alone in her passion for service. Her generation—known to social scientists as the Millennial generation—has been lauded for its idealism and unabashed exuberance. A diverse segment of the population born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, the country’s 92 million Millennials are known for being motivated by social causes, a characteristic not lost on nonprofit organizations as this group shifts into positions of leadership and economic power.

“This is a generation that has full agency with new media, is aware of what’s going on in the world and can just as easily be moved by a typhoon in India as they can by hunger in their own community,” says Matt Mullenix, interim president and CEO of the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations (LANO). “We see our member organizations trying to figure out how to effectively connect with young adults and tap their interests. It definitely requires new strategies, including better social media.”

Emelie Alton, chair of the 2013-2014 Community Fund for the Arts, says that reaching twentysomethings more effectively is a priority for the annual fund that raises money to support 15 local arts organizations. “Reaching that audience is a huge opportunity for us to grow our donor base and increase our stability,” Alton says. “They’re a big market.”

From the arts and animal welfare to the environment and homelessness, a range of causes moves Millennials, but unlike past generations, they expect a higher degree of transparency and accountability, says Mullenix.

“There’s an expectation that if you’re going to give money or time to a cause, then it’s not enough to just write a check,” he says. “Whether they get involved with a local cause or a cause somewhere else, they want to really see how that’s going to make difference, how it’s going to move things forward.”

Young people are motivated to feel part of a group of like-minded individuals, says advertising executive Taylor Bennett, founder of MESH Integrated Marketing & Advertising. Bennett advises nonprofits on how to reach Millennials. “We know in the way that they respond to Facebook and Twitter, or photos or video from events, that they need to feel engaged,” he says.

Indeed, public events, such as fun runs and 5k races, have soared in popularity in Baton Rouge as nonprofits try to rope in a broader sector of the community—including health-conscious Millennials. According to Club South Runners, which helps local organizations plan races, the number of charity runs is up. “These events are absolutely on the rise, because they appeal to a lot different age groups and to both men and women,” says Club South volunteer and business owner David Vincent.

For AmeriCorps member Crystal Kasik, another Delta Service Corps Member, it’s not a cause, but a larger issue that fuels the passion. “Social justice issues are big for me,” says the former Women’s Studies major from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. Kasik is giving a year of service to STAR, the Sexual Trauma and Response Center in Baton Rouge, where she educates young people about how to recognize unhealthy relationship behaviors, digital abuse and other issues that can lead to sexual violence. (Read more about this organization.)

Kasik’s stint in Baton Rouge follows 15 months in the Peace Corps working at a health clinic in the West African country of Cameroon.

“Whether it’s working with women or young people, I feel like it’s so important for everyone in a community to be empowered,” says Kasik, who plans to pursue graduate school after she completes her year with Delta Service Corps. “I can’t speak for my generation, but for me, I always had an intrinsic sense of being involved in the community. I really believe in the power of collaboration to bring about social change.”