Baby Boomers and Older Adults: Go For Startups

Despite the ups-and-downs of my experiences in the nonprofit sector over the course of thirty years, I remain optimistic about the future. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post on LinkedIn about the Millennial generation. There, I reference an article by Jean Case, in Forbes (June 18, 2014), “The Business of Doing Good: How Millennials Are Changing the Corporate Sector.”

“Many in this generation are known for being well-educated, entrepreneurial, tech savvy and idealistic. They take risks, are bold and want to change the world. Unlike past generations, they want to make their passions, inspirations and desire to do good part of their identity—and part of their work. The lines between personal passions and professional engagements are already rapidly disappearing. As a result, this commitment to doing good in the workplace is quickly becoming the new norm that will define the generation.”

#2030NOW

My experience is that Millennials and younger generations following on their heels are committed to a fixing the problems of society and to creating a better world at all levels. They are unafraid of tackling difficult challenges with creativity and conviction. And, they are already dominating the workforce. Their impact will continue to be far-reaching for decades to come. Hardly any American corporation today can afford to ignore them.

As I note in, “Nonprofits and Boomers: Are We Missing the Boat,” nonprofit organizations must also be mindful that Boomer and older generations are key for successful fundraising, for their knowledge and their valuable life experiences. Boomers are a generous generation and highly supportive of nonprofit endeavors, yet they are often seen as being stodgy and old fashioned.

Marketing professionals continue to focus on the young and the aesthetics of youth. And while many older adults do strive to be “younger” in some ways, as time moves forward and the aging population explodes worldwide, we are seeing a growing pride in being “older” and in the aesthetic preferences of older adults. Notice my Gravatar on Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog: I am embracing my naturally gray hair this year (as are a growing number of other “Boomers”), after years of tinting it.

Go For

Earlier this year, I approached a large national foundation that also has a substantial number of donor advised funds, with a grant proposal for funding an outstanding nonprofit project. But the nonprofit’s annual operational budget, being “under $500,000,” meant the foundation declined support based solely on that criteria. They would not take even a cursory glance at what the nonprofit is accomplishing, at how well run it is, and how worthy it might have been as a partner. On a personal note, what that foundation’s professional advisors also missed is that some of the Board members and donors of that nonprofit were capable of establishing donor advised funds. They would have been thrilled to receive even a modest grant and might have themselves become donor advised fund clients. But the “under $500,000” rule supplanted all other considerations in this case. But why is operating budget size so important?

Since returning to Austin in 2013 and helping nonprofit “startups” bolster their infrastructure and credibility in order to be able to secure more substantial donations, I have noticed some funders reluctant to support them because they are, “too small.” Potential donors cite the nonprofits have not been in existence long enough (i.e., five years or more). Some decline because these smaller and younger initiatives have not had formal audits, which are an expensive undertaking for most small nonprofit organizations (and there are reputable alternatives). I visited with one foundation a few years ago that required every nonprofit applicant to have four consecutive years of professional audits. That is way over the top. I advised them to focus instead on gold-level or higher GuideStar profiles and GreatNonprofits reviews by those actually involved with and volunteering for the nonprofits applying.

The fact is, many of these startups and young nonprofits are lean staff- and budget-wise, and they operate highly efficiently. They accomplish amazing things with relatively little and the staff are deeply loyal to their missions. In my opinion, there seems to be a disconnect between the donor and professional advisor sectors, and the vast majority of nonprofit organizations, which are in fact smaller in size.

From the GuideStar Blog comes, “What Does the Nonprofit Sector Really Look Like?” (January 6, 2017):

“The majority of nonprofits (66.3%) have annual budgets of less than $1 million. From there, as organization size increases, the number of nonprofits decreases. For every 1 powerhouse (annual expenses more than $5 billion) nonprofit, there are thousands of grassroots organizations.”

My hope is for deeper, long-term partnerships between younger and older generations, the latter holding significant disposable income to make charitable donations. Boomers and older adults (and their professional advisors), often focus their charitable giving on tried-and-true nonprofits that have been in existence for many years. That is certainly their choice to make, but having seen nonprofits large and small in some detail as a professional fundraiser, I can say without hesitation many of younger and smaller nonprofits, startups and social good enterprises are more efficient and more likely to create positive change in society than the older, top-heavy ones. But these younger initiatives are often seen as being, “riskier.”

Boomers and Younger Generations Are Each Part of the Puzzle

Lose your fear and support startups and smaller nonprofit organizations. Younger generations are – and will be – driving much of the social change ahead. We need to trust and encourage them. But also, younger generations need to engage older citizens and tap their knowledge and enthusiasm for social good, as well as their charitable donations. Together we can change the world for the better.

You might also enjoy reading:

“Furthermore, demographic trends make it clear that over the next decade increasingly greater numbers of Millennials will be elected to office, giving them the power to enact laws that can change how corporations are governed and what responsibilities those entities owe to all of their stakeholders. When that happens the entire edifice of corporate governance constructed on the idea of only maximizing shareholder value will come crashing down and a new foundation for American corporations, built on trust and the values and beliefs of Millennials will arise in its place. Those companies that dedicate their future to changing the world for the better and find ways to make it happen, will be rewarded with the loyalty of Millennials as customers, workers and investors for decades to come. Those that choose to hang on to outdated cultures and misplaced priorities are likely to lose the loyalties of the Millennial generation and with it their economic relevance.”

  • Philanthropy News Digest, “Millennials Are Changing the Landscape of Social Change, Report Finds” (July 29, 2019).
  • United Nations Foundations, Social Good Summit 2014, #2030NOW
  • Wise: Seniors in Business is a website you might enjoy perusing. “Seniors in Business serves the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurship in the world – senior (experience and knowledge) entrepreneurs (people over the age of 50) who are looking for an encore career, whether it is because they want to, or have to.” Older adults are also establishing nonprofit organizations to meet critical needs. Professional advisors need to be aware of this, too.

Thanks to the Adobe free image library for the photographs used to illustrate this blog post.

Being a Bridge

Pennybacker Bridge, Austin, Texas

Bridges make connections possible. Bridges facilitate the crossing of people, “from one side to the other.” Shown is the breathtaking Pennybacker Bridge, a “through-arch bridge” located on the west side of Austin in the scenic hill country. Click on the photograph to learn more about it.

I have always thought of nonprofit fundraisers as “bridges” between their organizations and donors. Development professionals must constantly make connections and translate their nonprofit’s mission and needs to individuals, families, foundations, corporations and governments in such a way that funding is provided.

Nonprofit programmatic staff and some board members sometimes lack the skills (or the inclination) to speak with potential donors, and often they do not enjoy asking for financial support. This is where development staff shine, of course.

When I lived in Dallas in the 1990s, I worked on a variety of nonprofit fundraising campaigns, some in their entirety (from start to finish), others for more limited engagements (only for grant research, writing, solicitation, publications and the like). Once, I came across a nonprofit board chairman who was highly regarded in the community, but he had an abiding fear of asking anyone for a donation. A fundraising consulting firm his nonprofit had hired felt the board, including this noteworthy volunteer, were generally useless. Everyone involved had become frustrated. But, I knew there was a way to turn this situation around.

I assured the volunteer that during our forthcoming meeting – which happened to be with one of the leading bank trust departments in Dallas – that he only needed to speak about his passion for the nonprofit and the good it was accomplishing in the community. I promised to pick up the conversation once he was finished, to handle the request for funding and how best to follow-up. Luckily he trusted me and our meeting went very well. Together, we lined the nonprofit up for a six figure donation, which was ultimately received.

In this way, I acted as a bridge between the nonprofit and the prospective donor, but also between my distinguished volunteer and the trust department staff. I understood intuitively that in order to get this critical job done, we had to build a few bridges before arriving at the desired destination.

There is another factor I have discovered in working with major gift donors and nonprofit organizations seeking support, one that reminds me of being a “bridge.” This concerns the donors themselves.

Nonprofit staff (and the general public) sometimes assume that sophisticated, affluent donors are experts in every topic under the sun. But the truth is, they are experts in the fields where they have excelled and thrived. This may or may not include understanding how your nonprofit works and what it is accomplishing (or what it hopes to accomplish).

Nonprofit development staff can be of invaluable help by translating organizational information to donors and prospective donors in an easy-to-understand fashion, and vice versa. Yes, sometimes translating the donor’s needs and perceptions to fellow staff is required. This enables you to continue forward with a successful partnership negotiation, for example.

Development professionals are indispensable links between their organizations and funding partners. This often takes both verbal and written forms, as the case may be. Development staff must be able to translate in an understandable fashion critical information, and in both directions: internally and externally. This is truly an essential role that should not be taken for granted!

Understanding Prospective Donors

  • Lila MacLellen wrote for Quartz, “Science Confirms Rich People Don’t Really Notice You – Or Your Problems” (October 23, 2016). “No one can pay attention to everything they encounter. We simply do not have enough time or mental capacity for it. Most of us, though, do make an effort to acknowledge our fellow humans. Wealth, it seems, might change that.”
  • For me, Taylor Shea’s article for Reader’s Digest nails my experiences with affluent donors, “How Rich People Think: 25+ Things They Won’t Tell You” (N.D.). “Anytime the newspaper lists my name among the 100 top-paid executives in the area, I get a ton of requests from people asking for money. It happened so much that I had to come up with a strategy to deal with it. Now I say, ‘I’m happy to give. I’ll match however much you raise yourself.’”
  • From The Wealthy Accountant, “5 Things Rich People Do That You Don’t” (August 3, 2016). “Wealthy people have vision. They know where they are, where they are going, and how they will get there.”

Some of you might also enjoy my article, “Ph.D.s and Fundraising.” There I discuss the pitfalls of working with very bright programmatic staff who are hopeless when it comes to explaining what they are accomplishing to the public and/or to donors. I’ve been a “bridge” for many years; I find Ph.D.s to be among the most difficult to work with in a development context (although I find their research and discoveries fascinating).