Bill Kitson: You have to do more than ask for money in the nonprofit industry

Today’s donors and volunteers are seeking new ways to contribute their time, talent and treasure, forcing the nonprofit industry to find innovative strategies to keep them engaged. Audience segmentation based on a donor or volunteers specific interests engages them by affirming their contribution directly impacts the causes they passionately support. 

This is an issue I think about often as United Way struggles to hold onto its donors. In the last 20 years, the number of United Way donors has significantly decreased. Today we stand at only 80,000 donors in a community of more than 1.2 million people. It begs the question — how can United Way and other community nonprofits morph from our grandfather’s charity into something new, fresh and exciting?


Millennials and philanthropy

Baby boomers make up the largest share of donations to charities. Research suggests boomers determined their charities of choice in early adulthood. Following the trend of the preceding generation, millennials are currently making similar decisions about which causes they will continually support in their lifetime.

Millennials thrive on instant gratification, which impacts their approach to philanthropy. Millennials want to take action — they want to see their donations and their volunteer time impact the community immediately. This group gets involved with philanthropy because they want to personally identify with a cause.

Most millennials don’t give at the same level as their more established counterparts, but their ability to advocate is priceless. Millennials are more influenced by their peers than any of the earlier generations. They can and want to use their voice and other platforms like blogs and social media to create awareness about an organization’s cause.

Nonprofit organizations are starting to focus their research and strategies around millennials because they realize this generation is driving true community impact. To tap into this audience, nonprofits should create opportunities for millennials to give, advocate and volunteer to something specific such as kids succeeding in school or job training to reduce poverty.


Corporate social responsibility

We can also reach a new audience of donors within our corporate community. Like millennials who want to be more engaged, many corporations want a similar hands-on approach to philanthropy. Businesses are seeking opportunities to create a new kind of impact in their ever-changing communities. This is an opportunity for nonprofits and corporations to leverage their partnerships.

More corporations are aligning their philanthropic giving directly to their values whether it’s youth development or green initiatives. And business leaders also strategize their philanthropic giving around issues most important to their employees and their brand.

For example, housing services partner with banks to provide financial counseling and foreclosure prevention services in the community. And there are companies committed to education where employees serve as mentors to guide area students through academic challenges.

Millennials and corporations are becoming more strategic about their philanthropy. It’s vital for nonprofits to find ways to remain relevant in this new environment. Nonprofits need to be specific; it’s no longer enough to ask a donor to give to “help people in need.” Now, it’s a matter of focusing to improve graduation rates or ensuring kids read at grade level.

Let’s take advantage of opportunities to engage donors and volunteers by creating targeted, personal and localized giving opportunities, volunteer projects and chances for our audiences to use their voice to support our causes. 


Bill Kitson, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland, is committed to advancing education, income and health by engaging community members to give, advocate and volunteer. He can be reached at (216) 436-2101 or [email protected] For more information, visit


Twitter: @UnitedWayCLE