The Key to Reaching Donors Under 35: Interview with Blackbaud's Kevin Sher

March 15, 2021 Brian Isaac

It’s the fundraising egg that can be very hard to crack: how can charities generate significant income from generations under the age of 35?

Clicks and likes are one thing, but turning engagement into donations has proved very difficult across the board with younger audiences.

Kevin Sher, President and General Manager at Blackbaud Pacific, says that we need to stop waiting for 20-year-olds to become 40-year-olds, and begin genuine fundraising for people in Gen Y.

The key isn’t what you’d expect. For Sher, it’s high quality, well-executed leadership at the board level.


“Successful organisations' boards will be applying the same commercial rigour and standards that they might if they were on a commercial board."

“That includes their funding models and risk profiles, their obligations to higher quality CEOs, their strategy and compliance,” he said.

Meeting the Gen Y problem head-on is hard, he says, but it’s not impossible.

Younger audiences will want a greater, more personalised connection with their beneficiaries. For many charities, that will involve a fundamental shift in how they operate, but it’s leadership that must be done.

“There’s going to be much more focus on designated funding and individuals over time. Millennials, Gen Y's, as they give, they'll want to give to much more specific programs.”

2020: nonprofit leaders' biggest test yet

Non-profit leaders were given their biggest test yet in 2020. The way things had been done for many years became untenable, essentially overnight.

But boards that were willing to step out of their comfort zones reaped massive rewards, Sher pointed out.

“It comes back to leadership culture, CEO culture, and board culture. Those that invested more through COVID-19 made rapid learnings and built strong, resilient businesses for future success.”

One indicator of leadership culture that’s willing to step out of the comfort zone is when leaders ‘fail fast.' Trial-and-error requires humility, a willingness to learn, and agility in finding solutions.

Online events, for example, quickly became a new norm in 2020, when in-person gatherings were off the table. But the concept itself was entirely new, and the charities that thrived were the most flexible.

It’s this attitude – rigorous, risky leadership – that’s going to be crucial for cracking the under-35 egg. Trying new things is always going to be important, and moving on from ideas that don’t work will be even more so.

What about 10 years from now?

Casting ahead to the next ten years, Sher believes that the industry will hinge on this crucial point. He says that charities whose leadership is willing to be rigorous, data-driven, and agile will pull well ahead of the pack.

“The successful organisations are incrementally improving. They understand the basics and get them right: data quality, major gifts and individual giving programs.

“Then they try different things on the side and innovate – on digital, peer to peer, regular giving, and so on.”

Where that leaves us now is a time for head starts.

Making inroads with younger generations now will clearly reap exponential rewards in the next ten years and beyond.

But where will the fundraising world be in 2030? And how can fundraisers get a step ahead with young people?


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