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Lee Fox: Nonprofit Partnerships with Youth from Social Media for Nonprofits

At the Social Media For Nonprofits conference, I stepped in front of 300 non-profit leaders and said: “I’ve been given 30 minutes to convince you that YOUTH need NEW APPROACHES to volunteering, service and philanthropy. AND, more importantly, if you DO empower young people, your organization will achieve change for the causes you serve more rapidly and more effectively.”  I’ll be saying the same thing on 08/14 in Los Angeles, 08/28 in Boston and 10/23 in Austin (register here, and enter “KooDooZ” as the promotional code).

As bold as that statement may be, it is true.  We have before us a new generation of activists who are mashing up philanthropy in ways that most organizations have yet to understand or empower.  Unfortunately, “activism 2.0” tends to be mistaken as “slacktivism” — a derogatory and damaging label, particularly when associated with youth.  The term suggests that their efforts are less consequential and therefore, not as meaningful.  Simple actions such as signing an online petition, changing the appearance of an avatar, and social sharing may be signatures of a “slacktivist,” but they’re also the first powerful steps of a cause champion.


Thanks to technology, the world’s youth are sensitized and aware of the humanitarian challenges that surround them globally.  Their penchant for knowledge-sharing makes youth — 52% of the world’s population — a powerful broadcast force for awareness-building.  And awareness building is a huge part of how nonprofits earn donors and volunteers!

So while charities report persons in their early twenties as being the least likely to volunteer, Millennials and Generation Z’s are self-identifying in higher and higher numbers as “active volunteers.”  Case in point, of the 6,522 respondents from the Millennial Impact Report, 63% said they volunteered for a nonprofit in 2011. Both traditional and non-traditional “volunteer” activities need to be embraced.


The way I see it, nonprofit leaders are making a big mistake if they only value traditional activism (that they control and plan), such as participation at rallies and events, structured volunteerism, or raising funds for donation.   According to a TBWA\Chiat Day study, not only do youth find traditional activism unsatisfying, 40% don’t feel these activities have viable impact!

More importantly less than 1-in-10 youth have faith in the nonprofit sector to address the very issues they care about most — such as lack of job opportunities, inadequate education, vulnerable working conditions and insufficient government investments as illustrated in the 2012 World Youth Report.


There’s a great infograph detailing the “rise of the slacktivist” which illustrates the fact that social media promoters are 4x’s more likely to encourage others to sign a petition, or contact a politician, and twice  more likely to volunteer, ask for donations or take part in an event!  In essence, the very outcomes nonprofit leaders desire!  Again, the Millennial Impact Report stated that an astonishing 75% of respondents gave a financial gift (albeit micro-sized donations averaging ~$100 dollars), and 71% raised money for a cause they cared about.


For-profits have pivoted enough to understand how powerful it is to have brand-champions re-imagine a product’s purpose, use and message.   I contend nonprofits need to allow for the same kind of co-creation with causes and philanthropy to stay relevant.  (Being that three-in-four young adults agree companies have the material resources needed to support social causes, nonprofits have to recognize that they are not always going to be the leading authority in today’s cause conversations.)

Gone are the days of broadcasting how “you” can support “us” to help “them.” Young adults need to know how “all of us” — working together — can meet and overcome our world’s most pressing challenges.

Since the one thing we all share is narrative and story-telling, the first thing a nonprofit can do is enable co-creation networks.  Youth aren’t passively consuming information, they’re mashing it up with their own productions of videos, music remixes, games, and written pieces – all of which exist and can be credited online.


As if that isn’t convincing enough, according to a 2012 student Internet usage study, youth who create and pursue their passions online are more likely to be engaged in civic and political issues.   Passion-driven communities are directly associated with increased volunteer and charity work, as well as increased collaboration on community issues.  Therefore, it’s critical that nonprofits cultivate (or partner with) online and offline spaces which give youth the ability to (i) share, (ii) learn, (iii) participate, (iv) collaborate and (v) impact.

A big heartbreak from all the work I’ve done with youth, is their perceived lack of value from their own communities.  Project Cornerstone issued a report recently which serves as a point-in-case example.   Though young people place high value on promoting social justice and taking personal responsibility for the betterment of their community, the data clearly shows that youth perceive adults as not valuing them in that context.   (Note:  To my dismay, this report actually has better numbers than the national average.)


ONLINE:  At least in the U.S., the “digital divide” between socio-economic groups no longer has a gulf.  94%-to-98% of American youth has access to a computer that connects to the internet, and three-quarters of teens (77%) have a cell phone.  Online is their playground, so please engage with them there.

  1. Be social and be seen
    (Youth use websites, social media and e-newsletters for information gathering.  According to the Millennial Impact Report, 67% of youth who have interacted with a nonprofit have done so on facebook.)
  2. Keep your online visuals compelling
    (photos and videos tend to be more powerful than words for enticing early engagement.)
  3. Share your mission, but make it concise
    (your nonprofit is simply the conduit by which people engage with the cause.  Stakeholders are not giving TO you, but THRU you.)
  4. Share information resources
    (avoid shameless self-promotion, youth want to learn about the cause you serve.)
  5. Give credit where credit is due
    (if you notice youth supporting your initiatives online, retweet, comment back and consider opportunities such as guest blogging or highlighting a youth philanthropic mash-up in your own social sharing.)
  6. Calls to action must be clear and easy to execute
    (young people expect to get it done in a “click” so make sure you’ve got a one-step process with which to engage.)
  7. Mobilize with mobile
    (young people are receptive to text-messages but only if the content is meaningful and not “SPAM.”  63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives, according to the PEW “Teens, Smartphones & Texting” study.  Additionally, as exemplified by the Text To Haiti case-study, mobile donations are often fueled by spur-of-the moment decisions that spread virally through friend networks.)

OFFLINE:  Provide youth leadership opportunities.  Consider what passions and skills they have that your organization can leverage.  Youth want to know exactly how their time, money or action is making a difference so communicate that effectively.

  1. Offer youth positions of leadership
    (77% of GenY are seeking a seat on a nonprofit board, and 48% are wishing there were better ways to apply their professional or academic skills when volunteering.  Young people feel morally obligated, and better equipped to help support social causes than previous generations.  Consider a youth advisory council, a spot on your board, a youth-directed philanthropic fund, and/or partner with youth-founded nonprofits, social enterprises and initiatives that are in the same cause conversation.)
  2. Offer a continuous string of short-term volunteering opportunities
    (58% of youth activists prefer short term volunteering, though almost half (46%) are happy to keep their efforts ongoing so long as they can clearly see the impact, according to the Millennial Impact Report.  Youth verbalize that they’d volunteer more, but often feel they miss out on opportunities to support charities, because they don’t learn about them.  Volunteering opportunities which re-occur over time, but can be achieved in short time-spans are most effective.)
  3. Develop a “rewarding friendships” program
    (a majority of youth (81%), participate in “real world” activism because of their friends.  Consider gamifying or rewarding individuals for telling their friends, and ask them how they’d integrate “fun” and “social” with the volunteerism.  Remember, the friend network is a power house.)     
  4. Be considerate
    (Passion for social causes is very personal, consider programs that are inclusive of gender, lifestage and circumstance needs.)

I’d love to start a conversation with you.

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May 2020

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