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The Charity Divide: Boomers Vs. Gen X and Gen Y

A new study finds big differences in how these three generations contribute to their favorite causes

By Richard Eisenberg

When it comes to making charitable donations, boomers do things a lot differently than members of Gen X and Gen Y, according to a fascinating new study. Maybe it’s time we take a page or two from those younger generations.
In The Next Generation of American Giving, the nonprofit fundraising consultant Blackbaud and its partners at Edge Research and nonprofit consultant Sea Change Strategies analyzed the charitable habits of four generations of Americans: boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and “matures” (born in 1945 and earlier).
(MORE: How Generous Are Baby Boomers?)
The Great Charity Divide
Here are four key findings from a survey of 1,014 U.S. donors online in May:
Only 10 percent of boomers said they plan to increase charitable giving over the next 12 months. By contrast, 21 percent of Gen Y respondents and 18 percent of Gen X’ers said they will give more. (This mirrors the results of a 2010 study by Convio, a nonprofit research firm that’s now part of Blackbaud.)
About 60 percent of Gen Y and 50 percent of Gen X said the ability to see the direct impact of their donation has a significant bearing on their decision to give. Just 37 percent of Boomers feel that way.
Boomers are much less interested in buying products because some or all proceeds will go to charity. About 36 percent of boomers have made purchases for this reason, comparerd to roughly half of Gen X and Gen Y.
Unlike Gen Y, boomers rarely give to charity through crowdfunding appeals such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Only 13 percent of boomers say they’d be likely to make a donation through crowdfunding online, compared with nearly half of Gen Y (47 percent). And a mere 6 percent of boomers have ever done so; 17 percent of Gen Y have contributed by visiting one of those websites.
Intrigued, I spoke with Dennis McCarthy, one of the study’s co-authors, to dive deeper into the findings.
(MORE: Boomer Women Give More to Charity Than Men)
Explaining Differences in Giving Plans
McCarthy says he thinks the reason boomers say they’re much less likely than Gen X and Gen Y to increase their giving over the next 12 months is that “boomers were absolutely eviscerated by the recession.” Many feel they can’t be quite as generous in the past.
That said, McCarthy notes, boomers are exceptionally generous. They account for 43 percent of all giving, donating almost twice as much to charities as the younger generations.
“Boomers will be the predominant paradigm for at least the next decade,” he predicts.
Paul Schervish, director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, who looked at the survey’s numbers for me, agreed. “The higher your expenses are for housing and education, the less secure you are about your ability to give more in the future,” he says.
How Experience Plays Into the Divide
I told McCarthy that I was surprised that few boomers said the ability to see the impact of their donation has a big bearing on their decision to give. I find people in their 50s and 60s tend to be skeptical (we remember Vietnam and Watergate), so I figured they’d want to be certain their money would be used well by a charity before handing it over.
McCarthy explained that boomers and “Matures” typically make donations to organizations they’ve known for years and often belong to, such as churches and synagogues.  As Schervish says, “Older people are experienced givers.”
They also like to give, through direct mail or telemarketing solicitations, to familiar big-name charity brands, such as the American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity, March of Dimes and the World Wildlife Fund. Boomers assume those groups will spend their donations wisely, McCarthy adds.
Conversely, “younger people are more likely to be motivated by a friend asking them to make a contribution or through social networks,” says McCarthy. “When they feel they can trust the organization, they’re more inclined to give more.”
(MORE: 6 Mistakes to Avoid When Giving to Charity)
Yawning Over Cause-Related Marketing
And why don’t boomers, unlike Gen X'ers and Gen Y'ers, go for cause-related marketing campaigns to buy products where proceeds go to charity?
For one thing, those tie-ins tend to be aimed at younger consumers. In fact, McCarthy says, many charities are far more interested in targeting Gens X and Y than boomers, even though the older generation has more money. 
Another reason: “Boomers are far less likely to be moved to say ‘I’ve got a cool T-shirt or a cool piece of jewelry’ that supports an organization, says McCarthy. “That feels too young for them. There’s a real age divide here.”
Schervish, a boomer who doesn’t make purchases due to cause-related marketing, agrees. “I buy what I need when I need it,” he says.
There are, of course, some charity/product connections pitched to older audiences.
Last year, Quaker State motor oil partnered with AARP in the Drive to End Hunger, donating 25 cents for every quart sold at Walmart. And when I tuned into the new lineup of comedies on CBS the other night —  the network that skews older — I noticed that each show included a break with its stars asking viewers to support Ford Warriors in Pink. That’s the car company’s line of wear and gear in which 100 percent of the net proceeds go to charities fighting breast cancer.
Perhaps it’s time for more manufacturers and retailers to drum up similar campaigns to tap into boomers’ generosity.
The Dearth of Crowdfunding Boomers
Finally, I asked McCarthy, why don’t boomers go for crowdfunding charity appeals? I’m slightly sorry to report that his answer: Most don’t know what crowdfunding is.
“When I give talks about charity, I ask people how many of them have heard of Kickstarter or IndieGoGo," says McCarthy. "All the hands of the younger people go up and just a smattering of boomers’ hands do. A lot of the boomers say, 'What’s crowdfunding?'”
If you’re not highly engaged in social media such as Twitter and Facebook — and many boomers aren’t — you’re unlikely to hear about charity crowdfunding efforts. I suspect this chasm between boomers and Gens X and Y will shrink, though, as Americans in their 50s and 60s increasingly join the Facebook and Twitter brigade.
McCarthy has one piece of advice for boomers, regardless of how or where they choose to give to charity. “If you can, spend more time learning about the charities you do support,” he says. If you plan to give to Habitat for Humanity, for example, go watch them build a home so you can see an example of the good your money will do.
“Then you become an informed philanthropist,” says McCarthy. “Your charitable giving stops becoming transactional and starts becoming transformational.”

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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