Changing preferences and priorities, combined with advancements in technology, have spurred the transformation of industries like media, retail, and transportation, among others. What about philanthropy? How should schools adapt their fundraising approach to engage young parents?

All schools recognize the importance of observing demographic trends. For example, these trends can reveal how many school-aged children can be expected to attend in a given area over a period of time. Changes in parent demographics can be observed as well. As young parents join school communities, it is important to know what makes their generation of donors different and which tried-and-true practices will continue to generate philanthropic support.

Much has been made of the distinctions between Millennials and Baby Boomers. In fact, it seems hard to avoid articles about how Millennials are forging a distinct path into young adulthood – marrying, buying homes, and having children later in life than their Boomer parents. These patterns can be seen among Generation X as well, so for consistency and inclusivity, let’s consider our young parents as both Millennials and Generation X.

Though it is true that young adults have driven vast societal and industry changes, it would be a mistake to paint with too broad a brush when considering how they differ from Boomers in their approach to philanthropy. There are distinctions that schools — along with nonprofit sectors — should be aware of, but they should not compel a complete deviation from proven fundraising principles. Understanding younger donors, however, will allow you to focus more on the methods that speak to their characteristics and priorities.

The Importance of Transparency

There is reason to be optimistic for the next generation of parent donors. Young parents may be part of the savviest generation of donors yet. A recent national survey from found that half of young donors conduct research on a charity before making a gift, compared to 37% of Boomers and 29% of Silent Generation donors. This survey reinforces a well-observed trait among young adults which is a general wariness of institutions and a desire for transparency. Schools are in a unique position to benefit from these trends because there should be ample inroads to build on the trust. After all, your school was selected to educate their child, so trust is already an inherent aspect of the relationship with the parent body.

Young donors are more likely than previous generations to want to supplement their giving by offering their time and talent as advocates or volunteers. We know that parents are typically heavily involved in their childrens’ education, especially through primary education. Parents can become invested with the school community as they volunteer, engage with teachers, and meet other parents.

When creating your outreach strategy, make sure those opportunities to engage are readily available. Avoid only asking for gifts without regularly providing avenues for parents to be involved in other ways. That high level of involvement should strengthen trust and can become the first step in establishing young parents as donors.

Focusing on Impact

Another element that young donors seek to a greater degree than older generations is an understanding of the impact of their gift. Consider how your school demonstrates impact. Do you discuss the Annual Fund broadly as filling the gap between the cost of tuition and the true cost to educate a child? Or do you provide specific examples of how the Annual Fund enhances the school for all children? Young donors feel more compelled to give when they understand how their gift will further your mission. It is therefore imperative that you be specific, not just for younger donors, but for all your donors. Making the effort to demonstrate value and impact will only make your development operation stronger.

Ongoing Engagement is Key

Young donors are less likely than Boomers to be habitual givers, but schools may be in a strong position to curb that trend with a high level of engagement and effective stewardship. In a CCS study of 120 education clients, donors to primary and secondary education institutions held statistically significant higher donor satisfaction rates, rated the school as a top philanthropic priority, and demonstrated a higher willingness to give compared to donors interviewed on behalf of higher education institutions. 

Another key finding in the study: among primary and secondary school donors, being asked was a more significant factor in their decision compared to donors giving to higher education. While prospect research on new, young families may be limited, and while broad assumptions about this new generation of parents may prevail, it is critical not to underestimate capacity to give. Instead, the following example demonstrates how established fundraising principles continue to apply.

Strategy in Practice: A Case Study

A current client, a small K-8 independent school, launched a campaign with the understanding that existing parents would be a primary constituency. During initial prospect review, it quickly became evident that almost no young, lower school parents had been identified as early major gift prospects. Why?

1. Little or no giving history, so they did not rise to the top of any lists
2. Less quantitative and qualitative data to identify donor prospects
3. Assumption that they were too new to the school community to make a significant investment

This provided an opportunity to reinforce an effective moves management system to position more young families for a major gift ask. First, the client utilized the campaign committee to gather qualitative information on young parents with estimated major gift capacity. Then, the client engaged identified prospects as volunteers and/or invited them to a briefing meeting to get their perspective on the project and seek their input – demonstrating transparency and two-way communication. In some cases, an initial meeting was set to discuss the role of the Annual Fund to make a clear distinction from the campaign. With those steps complete, a personalized, impactful gift proposal was presented.

As a result, multiple major gifts from previously under the radar lower school families excited about the campaign’s impact on their children, and the community more broadly, have been secured. Even a few potential board members have been identified in the process. The same principles that have guided successful fundraising apply to Millennial and Generation X parents: identify/discover, cultivate, brief, solicit, steward.

As the demographics of the parent body changes, it is important to recognize distinctions, but also understand that they do not call for a complete deviation from development practices that your school should already have in place. If anything, this new generation of parents should spur close examination to ensure that your school provides:

  • Avenues for two-way communication
  • Thoughtful and personal stewardship
  • Transparency
  • A compelling case for support

Understanding these distinctions and adapting to them will strengthen appeals to all generations of donors.

About the Author

Matt Metzgar is an Executive Director with CCS. Matt’s experience includes driving capital campaigns, major gifts strategy, working with boards and volunteer leadership, and conducting strategic assessments. His work spans secondary and higher education, arts and culture, and faith-based sectors.