Fundraising Success: Grooming the Next Generation of Donors

April 18th, 2011 By Jackie Larena-Lacayo

Grooming the Next Generation of Donors: An Interview With Miami Jewish Health Systems’ Blaise Mercadante

By Joe Boland

Many nonprofits face the hard reality that their strongest donors are aging. At the same time, they have a very small base of new, younger donors to sustain the organizational services in the future.

That’s exactly the situation that Miami health care nonprofit Miami Jewish Health Systems found itself in. So in order to grow its donor base and engage a younger generation, MJHS has reorganized its business model toward growth-oriented services to reach the next generation of donors. For instance, MJHS is holding a homecoming-themed gala reminiscent of high-school musicals for its platinum anniversary celebration, including impromptu performances and interactive events.

Here, FundRaising Success talks with Blaise Mercadante, chief development and marketing officer at MJHS, about the organization’s efforts to groom the next generation of donors.

FundRaising Success: Traditionally, who are your typical donors? What are their demographics (age, income, education, etc.)?

Blaise Mercadante: This year, we have been celebrating the 70th anniversary of our founding. In the past, our donor base was comprised primarily of the emerging Jewish community of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Miami. They saw the “Jewish Home,” as they called it, as a statement about the Jewish community, a sign of pride and commitment of care for their parents.

Our donor base has changed dramatically in the past few years, evolving from an older, Jewish donor base to a more diverse, younger donor base — tracking the cultural changes that have happened in our service community, South Florida. Our Latin Support Group is actually our largest support group. Typically, our donors become interested in Miami Jewish Health Systems in their late 40s and early 50s, when they become aware of the service that we offer for their parents and themselves. However, we have donors as young as mid-20s and as old as 105. Age, income and culture no longer define our donor base.

FS: How do you plan on engaging with younger donors and cultivating them? Do you have specific fundraising tracks and appeals targeted at younger prospect donors compared to your current and traditional donors?

BM: First, we plan to survey younger prospects we want to reach with regard to their interests and needs, then develop services and communication to address those needs and make MJHS relevant to them as a vital part of the greater community. We know that younger donors want to make an impact on the world that they cannot create on their own, and we must communicate that supporting MJHS helps them accomplish just that. Increasingly, the best way to talk to them is via the communication channels they use most, namely via e-mail, social media and other online media.

As for specific fundraising tracks and appeals, we keep in mind the importance of balance for younger donors in their work, life and community involvement. In that regard, we often hold functions in the evenings and provide educational/professional forums/symposia. We also offer networking and mentoring opportunities. Some specific fundraising tracks we’re working with include planned-giving opportunities, monthly contributions, annual giving and cumulative giving.

FS: How do you balance your current donor appeals against acquisition of younger donors? How do acquisition efforts with more traditional donors differ from those of younger prospects?

BM: First, there is no conflict in reaching older versus younger donors. Their objectives are identical: Both want to fix the world. The only difference is the two generations use different language and are reached through different means.

In acquiring new donors, we continue to engage and involve traditional donors through established methods but are careful to stay current with always-evolving fundraising methodology. We have had great success reaching and engaging new donors of the younger generation via new technologies (for instance, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter), and while many traditional donors may not be using e-mail or the Internet nearly as much as younger ones, we have been surprised at how many grandmothers and great grandmothers are on Facebook!

FS: How did you come up with the innovative ideas — homecoming gala, performances, etc. — to get a younger generation of donors to sustain fundraising?

BM: For starters, we pulled together lay leadership who understand the need to reach out to a broader community and hire professionals in event planning who know what’s hot. In reaching outside our core base, we connected with those who don’t know us and also tapped other sources of “new blood” — for instance, our vendor partners, many of whom are considerably younger and can provide insight into that group’s perspective. Lastly, we had the will and the confidence to produce something radical. Many not-for-profits are afraid of offending anyone at anytime, which keeps them firmly in the comfortable and boring middle. Sometimes you have to lay it all on the line and just go with an idea. We did. It worked spectacularly.

FS: What advice would you give to organizations looking to engage younger donors and prospects? How must you communicate with them differently?

BM: First and foremost, gear a significant portion of fundraising programs and organizational deliverables to younger donors. They are the future. In doing so, make communication nearly instant and easily accessible — e.g., Facebook, Twitter or a blog. Lastly, ensure that your staff includes a diversity of viewpoints and a variety of ages, cultures and professional backgrounds. Too many organizations have homogeneity in their marketing and fundraising departments. You want healthy, creative conflict and the input from the young and from different cultures to help guide the way to the future.

FS: What channels do your current donors respond best to, and how does that compare to younger prospects? What channels do you think will be vital in the future to cultivate a younger demographic?

BM: We find that our current donors respond to the personal touch — relationships fostered through phone calls, visits, lunch. Younger donor relationships can be maintained in part by electronic connections like social media, but they also crave personal contact in a way relevant to them. In the future, to cultivate a younger demographic in the donor community, organizations should host events that are relevant to younger donors and communicate via social media.

FS: Where do you plan to invest your resources to offset the aging donor base, and what areas do you think are crucial for fundraisers to engage in to sustain growth and dollars?

BM: One area which is increasingly a focus for us is corporate philanthropy, as well as women’s philanthropy — women make 80 percent of the health care decisions in the U.S., so for our organization, it’s a key group to invest in. In addition, we plan to invest more in developing partnerships with physicians and other health care providers. Lastly, here in South Florida, no organization can survive without a strong relationship with the Latin community, so we’re always integrating with that sector of the South Florida community, perhaps bringing donors over for some café con leche and a chat.

FS: Anything else you’d like to add?

BM: Don’t be afraid to try new things. Wayne Gretzky has a quote that has guided me for years: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” You are not going to develop and evolve an organization while remaining safely in the bland, boring middle. You have to take chances. Dare to be bold with young donors. With all donors, young and old, I find myself constantly challenging my own assumptions and my staff’s assumptions, particularly so with donor groups that are different from us personally — young, Latin, Russian, Haitian, whoever they may be. We learn the world from their viewpoint and really listen to them. Talking meaningfully with them is a broadening experience, fun and keeps me young.

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