We already know that millennials are generous. We know that they are impact-driven, influential, and connected in a way no other generation before them has been. We also know the numbers - that in 2014, 84% of employed millennials made a donation, and 70% of them volunteered.
So why is higher education experiencing a relentless 20-year decline in alumni engagement?
As a millennial, an alumna, and an advocate for higher education, I have explored this trend in depth - but I wanted real stories of real people who engage in giving in real ways.
So I threw it out into the world: I would conduct a handful of interviews to learn 1) where the interviewee last donated and 2) why.
The only requirement? Be young alumni.
Kim Caldwell, 31 | Entrepreneur
Kim runs her own lingerie marketing business and website, Hurray Kimmay, where she publishes educational and inspirational content that empowers women all over the world to practice self-love. She is also highly active in her community and is one of those women who can seemingly be everywhere at once and make it look easy.
"I have donated on a regular basis, mainly to causes or events that my friends are a part of," she began. "The biggest one that I organized was a bra drive for Free the Girls, a nonprofit that takes bra donations and helps women who have been victims of sex trafficking set up their own bra businesses. I donated 40 of my own bras, gathered donations from friends, and included a check with my donation."
So why Free the Girls? After all, many organizations would gladly accept her gift. "The reason I partnered with Free the Girls was because of their mission to empower women after tragedy. They don't just go in and rescue these women and then say goodbye. They help them create their own bra business!" She then added, "I would love to teach the women who have set up these businesses some fitting and sales techniques. Wouldn't that be cool one day?"
Her philanthropic involvement didn't begin or end with Free the Girls. She also donates to her choir in which she's also on the board, uses Amazon smile when shopping, attended Global Citizen Fest 2016, and she continues to engage with charities and organizations that bring change to her community and beyond.
"I would never think that I was a big 'donator,' but gosh, I think I do more than I realize," and then - in typical Kim fashion - she added, "HURRAY!"
Shayna Lowe, 22 | Training Coordinator
In August, Shayna found herself in the epicenter of the worst US disaster since Hurricane Sandy - the Louisiana flood.
This disaster hit close to home - literally. "I donated to the Red Cross after all the flooding in Baton Rouge. It was a moving and intense experience, and a lot of people I know were affected by the flood. Many people I work with - people that went out of their way to welcome me when I first moved here - had lost so much."
Shayna shared that, in addition to her donation, she worked alongside coworkers to clean their homes after floodwaters destroyed them. "We cleaned out about 1-3 houses a day between all of us," she added, "It was heartbreaking."
She knew, however, she wanted to support the community beyond the people she already knew: "There were a lot of people that were affected by the flood who didn't have others to help them or the funds to help with repairs. I heard a lot of stories about people losing their entire homes, and insurance and FEMA assistance were not enough to cover the damages. So seeing the extent of the damage inspired me to donate."
What I love about this story is that Shayna not only saw a need and executed to make a difference for the people she knew, but she had extended empathy for others who lacked resources to support their own recovery efforts. It was far from passive philanthropy - she gave wholly to a cause that was close to her heart that made a real, tangible difference in her community.
Brenton Dong, 27 | Firmware Developer
Four years ago, a friend of Brenton's packed up his life and moved to Indonesia to build relationships in the community, grow coffee beans with them, and work with them to establish coffee businesses to support their local economy. Brenton has been donating monthly to this friend ever since.
When Brenton first told me that he had been giving every month for over four years toward a cause that he would have otherwise not invested in, I had to ask: Why?
"The mission my friend described wasn't as important as he was to the mission, and I'd rather give money to the people addressing a cause - not the cause itself. A lot of my giving is similar," Brenton shared. He also noted the importance of character and integrity of a person or organization asking for funds. He knew his friend had both of these attributes, making it an easy decision to support his mission in Indonesia.
I learned that Brenton gives to many people and small groups - including a small prayer ministry at his alma mater - though he traditionally does not give to larger organizations or charities. "Giving is releasing responsibility of the money, not just the value of it," Brenton continued, "It's much easier for me to give when I know the person or people on the other side."
Finally, he shared that he doesn't need numbers or fancy graphs to convince him that his gift was worthwhile, and that too much focus on data could actually do more harm than good. "If an organization started depersonalizing the mission and made it look like a business instead of a family, I would rethink my giving next time," he said before adding, "As an engineer, I need data for most things. For giving, it's somehow different."
Nina Raad, 26 | Executive Director
Nina is an annual donor to Scottsdale Active 20-30 Club, an organization of 50 men in their 20's and 30's who raise funds and volunteer for an array of local children's charities together.
Her fiance, Ryan, has been a member of the club for the past three years. However, Nina shared that even if she didn't know any of the members, she would still be an active donor, stating, "I would totally give to Scottsdale 20-30 if Ryan wasn't involved. My passion and my career are dedicated to helping children in need."
Over the years, Nina and Ryan have worked together to get their friends involved, whether through donations or membership. It's clear that this club has given them the opportunity to rally together for meaningful initiatives that move their hearts.
I asked Nina about transparency and how she knew the club and the local children's charities were properly stewarding her donations. She shared, "Once a year, the club holds a 'Gifting Meeting' where all the club members and their spouses have dinner with the recipients of the donations," she continued, "During or after dinner, the club President presents a check to each charity. Once they are called up, a representative from the charity shows videos, talks about impact, and shares inspiring stories. But we don't just get to meet the representatives - sometimes the charities will bring one or two kids, and the kids will make a speech. This is an emotional meeting for a lot of us. Seeing the hard work these guys put in each year paying off is the most rewarding feeling."
The Scottsdale Active 20-30 Club fits Nina's lifestyle and passion like a puzzle piece. Her busy schedule sometimes prevents her from committing to other charities on a regular basis, but she is comforted in knowing that her donation to the club makes positive and permanent impact on the lives of children in her city.
Kyle Leakway, 31 | Software Engineer
I was especially excited to speak with Kyle, my USEED colleague and friend. I prompted him on Slack to ask if he had recently donated anywhere. As a matter of fact:
I later learned that Kyle had donated to Haven Home for Girls - a group home and organization that supports pregnant youth and young mothers in crisis.
He didn't begin his relationship with the organization with a financial gift, though. Two years ago, he volunteered for a large-scale cleanup project at the home. "My daughter had just been born and it hit close to home. I knew I had to go."
It wasn't until the girls came home after spending a day out on the town that he realized this was only the beginning. "They were so excited about every little thing we did. They noticed everything," he continued, "I later found that they had an Amazon wishlist that includes items like dryer sheets and stamps. It's clear there is a need, and that anything I can give is meaningful for them."
Today, Kyle continues to give his time, resources, and finances to support Haven Home for Girls, depending on which would make the greatest impact at any given time.
His most recent donation helped Haven Home for Girls pay rent and avoid eviction, which they were able to do with his help and the help of other generous donors. Next up for the organization will be to put a down payment on the home so it can be a permanent support system for the girls in his community who would otherwise not have a fighting chance at independence with their children.
And something tells me Kyle will be a part of this long-term vision. "I have an opportunity to help rewrite these girls' lives," he shared, "I see them around in my community, and I know that what I'm doing matters."
Mariah Baysinger, 25 | Behavior Analyst
Five years ago, Mariah was a college student working as an in-home provider for a five-year-old boy named Jayse. Jayse, this boy full of silliness and joy and life, was battling a rare illness known as Mitochondrial Disease. Mitochondrial Disease, also known as "Mito," is a relatively unheard of - and often fatal - disease that affects the nervous system, muscle development and coordination, growth, cognitive development, and almost all of the major organs in the body.
There is no cure.
At least not yet. But Mariah is passionate about bringing this disease to the public eye to find one.
"I volunteered at the 'Mito What?' BBQ and Concert to raise awareness for Mitochondrial Disease and to help raise funds to find a cure," she told me. "[When I met Jayse,] I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my major, and he showed me how important it was for me to continue working with children that have special needs. Jayse continued to grow as his illness progressed and I met many of his friends with mitochondrial disease and other terminal diseases. The fundraiser is a great way for me to show support to Jayse, his friends, and other children fighting mighty battles that also don't have awareness or a cure for their disease."
For children suffering from rare illnesses, Mariah believes that volunteering and spreading awareness is just as important as giving financially. She has volunteered for this event for three years running, and she works hard to get her friends and the community involved. "I think word of mouth is important to spread not only the fundraiser, but also awareness."
Jayse is now ten years old, and he continues to fight with courage and grace. Meanwhile, Mariah continues to advocate for a cure and personally invites her friends and family to join the efforts.
You can find her at the 'Mito What?' BBQ again this year, and this time with more people in tow and a louder voice than ever.
The reasons young alumni give are as diverse and unique as their own identities, which means that there is no formula for engaging them in philanthropy.
If higher education wants to halt this 20-year decline in alumni engagement, it must be in a constant state of curiosity and empathy. It must meet young alumni where they communicate (online), connect them with the causes, people, and organizations that stir their hearts, and continue to build on a foundation of trust.
These interviews left me with more questions as I quest to better understand how my own generation operates as young philanthropists, on fire to change the world.