Modernizing Workplace Giving Because Millennials Want Us To

I always learn a lot from talking with my peers at other companies, even if all I learn is that I’m not the only one struggling with certain problems. At a meeting recently, for example, I informally polled half a dozen workplace giving managers. They all said the same thing: “I’m raising more money, but fewer people are giving.” This mirrors my experience at Wells Fargo, where our workplace giving campaign has doubled in five years—from $42 million in 2009 to $89 million in 2013—while the number of people participating has stayed flat at about 97,000.

Meanwhile, our campaign exhibits other characteristics typical to overall giving trends: older donors are giving more than younger donors, and fewer younger people are giving. For all the kerfuffle about engaging Millennials, I can’t believe this is a new trend. We should expect that the people with more ability to give would, on average, give more.

Years ago, if I’d looked at the donor rates at all, I’d probably have just shrugged and left it at that, content that we were sending tons more money to the community. But now we better understand the relationship between community involvement and job engagement; we know that young people are in fact giving generously; and the nature of the workforce is changing with more mobility, more access to information, and less trust and patience. Plus, many of our biggest donors are looking at retirement in the next few years.hands hearts

To a workplace giving program manager like me, all this looks remarkably like a pipeline that’s drying up. I can squeeze more money from my aging donors today, but if we’re not bringing young donors into workplace giving, where will our older donors come from ten years from now?

The knee-jerk reaction would be to ask myself, “How do I convince them to give through my campaign?” I’ve been advised to dive into social media because that’s “where Millennials live,” to make our fundraising events and branding more “cool” and “fun,” to create online games that will get Millennials’ attention. While these may all be good ideas, I think they’re red herrings.

The problem is that I am not in the business of running a workplace giving campaign. I am in the business of making it easy for Wells Fargo employees to help in their community. And that means this is not a problem of communications, branding, or messaging. It’s a problem of service. It’s a problem of modernization.

Really, Millennials want the same things anyone ever has. They want to help. They want to know their contribution is making a real difference. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and if they can have fun and be social while doing it, even better. Finally, they want convenience; who has extra, unused time on their hands? Not me, that’s for sure.

Then what is different today? Basically, the speed at which things happen.

In the past, an annual workplace giving campaign worked because people could think annually. Taxes are paid annually. Performance reviews and raises happen annually. Signing up for benefits happens annually. School starts and ends the same time every year. “Annual” works for planning.

dollar and Donation BoxBut charitable giving is emotional—we give to causes and organizations we connect with—and emotions are not easily planned out. The connection that spurs someone to action might come at a volunteer event, or during a conversation with a friend, or by stumbling onto a video online. It does not come through a corporate web site or an email from the CEO. Today, people want to give when the mood moves them, and it’s harder to capture that at open enrollment time.

The clearest example I can think of is the spike in donations we see after a disaster. There’s an immediate emotional connection, a desire to help, a meaningful result, and now a super convenient way to give through texting. There’s no secret to what’s going on here: People now have the technology to take action in the moment, when they feel moved to give. And that’s what’s missing when I look at my workplace campaign and compare it to the mission of “making it easy for employees to help.”

So what does this tell me? That workplace giving is on its way out? Not at all. This year I’m collecting well over a million dollars per paycheck and moving millions more from donations through credit cards, checks, and stock. I believe payroll deduction will continue to be an effective and convenient way for employees to donate as long as payroll exists. What it does teach me, though, is that I can involve a whole lot more people with the technologies now available.


We can all do that, but we have to accomplish three things:

  1. Create moments throughout the year that connect employees with causes in an emotionally significant, social, and societally meaningful way. Volunteer events, walks/runs/rides, and agency fairs all work toward this goal. Some nonprofits do these things better than others.
  2. Capture those moments by giving employees a way to take action right then and there. Text-to-give is a great example of this. In our 2013 campaign, our Charlotte campaign leaders held a “flash philanthropy” event and asked employees to text a vote, with the winning nonprofit getting the largest grant of the day. It was a lot of fun and created quite a buzz; employees have asked for a repeat this year.
  3. Convert that solitary action into a deeper engagement. This is where text-to-give falls short. We get the donor’s ten bucks, but we don’t work hard enough to stretch that emotional moment into something that really sticks.


And if we’re very clever, we can take additional steps to entice these donors into payroll deduction. Not because payroll deduction is what I’m measured on, but because that’s an efficient and effective way to extend that momentary emotional connection into a career-long habit.

The technology and techniques of employee engagement are evolving as fast as the tools and techniques of any other business practice. I invite you to help me keep on learning from my peers by sharing your ideas, opinions, and successes with me online (find me on Twitter as @dudleypj) and at the Charities @Work conference in April in New York City. I’ve got some ideas of my own, but I really want to hear what you have to say.


Learn more about engagement and millennials from the opening keynote session at the Charities@Work Summit from April 3-4, 2014 in New York.