Three Proven Ways to Engage Millennials in Social Impact

Love them or loathe them?  No other generation has been described in the contradictory terms used to portray millennials.

Are they lazy, entitled and self-centered?  Or are they passionate, engaged and socially concerned?

While many studies show the latter, in either case this is a generation of 75.4 million Americans that will comprise 50% of the workforce by 2020 and spends over $300B annually. 

For most forward-thinking social impact organizations, this cohort is the object of desire:

Then why do so many social impact organizations struggle to engage millennials?

One organization that can teach us all a thing or two about engaging this group is Spark, a San Francisco-based philanthropic network of young professionals who invest to improve the lives of women around the world.  With a network numbering over 15,000, the majority of whom are millennials, Spark and its Executive Director, Amanda Brock, have captured at least some of the secret sauce in mobilizing this demographic.

From giving circle to community

Spark began in 2004 with seven young women looking to address social, political and economic issues that women face globally.  They believed that young professionals wanted to apply their energy and resources toward leveling the playing field for women, both locally and globally. 

“Spark was built to make giving back accessible for young people by focusing on smaller donations and giving people the opportunity to decide where to invest the group’s funds,” says Amanda Brock.  “When hundreds of people got into a room to decide how to invest their combined funds, Spark began crowdfunding before it became part of the giving lexicon.”

That dialog and interaction helped the founders realize that this was more than a giving circle.  It was a community and participants could be members. 

People wanted to do more than donate – they wanted to engage.  Today, Spark’s investment committee has enabled thousands of young people to be part of social impact investing.  From soliciting and vetting applicants to presenting proposals on behalf of selected organizations to discussing the pros and cons of each applicant and then voting on where the money goes, Spark lets members participate in all aspects of the grant-making process. 

Members also go “beyond the dollar” to help Spark-supported organizations scale by bringing their personal passions and professional skills to bear for those they elected to invest in.

Accessible by design, Spark has become a platform for millennial social impact engagement, providing members with opportunities to invest, volunteer, learn and take on leadership roles.

Here are three proven ways that the Spark community has grown from seven to 15,000 engaged millennials:

Volunteer and leadership opportunities

“Volunteer engagement is huge for millennials,” says Brock.  According to the Millennial Impact Report, over 70% of employed millennials volunteered in 2015. 

In addition, many millennials seek leadership and development opportunities that they may not get on the job.  Whether it’s speaking in front of a group to represent a potential grantee, creating a committee on impact analysis or leading a successful fundraiser, Amanda and the board help members build skills that offer both personal and professional growth.

This takes a lot of one-on-one work.  Meaningful volunteer engagement is about understanding what skills members bring and how they would like to contribute those skills.  While some members step up on their own to take advantage of opportunities, others may come to meetings time and again and will engage further with proactive encouragement.

Play before you pay

Many people, and particularly millennials who have grown up in the freemium world, want to understand what they are getting before they decide to invest.  Spark is intentionally designed to allow potential members to jump right in or to put their toe in the water and check the temperature.

Spark uses events as a key draw to help potential members engage and understand the value of the network.  From social networking events to learning opportunities to “Cocktails for a Cause” that encourage attendees to support a specific grantee, events are low to no cost. 

To bring the benefits of membership front and center, investment committee meetings are open so that anyone who is interested can hear and learn from the discussion, but only members can vote on the grant recipients. 

Be open

At its heart, Spark is a peer-to-peer influence model, since millennials trust their friends over institutions.  People get excited about Spark and tell their friends.  By having a multi-pronged approach to engagement, that excitement can come from being able to invest with impact, from developing new leadership skills or from being part of a diverse and engaged cohort.

Facebook is the main social media connection and has been critical in building Spark’s community.  Twitter has a role in direct conversations, as well.

Beyond individual members, Spark consistently supports sister organizations interested in common outcomes by partnering on events and promotional opportunities and promoting them on social media.

In keeping with the play before you pay model, events are open and promoted on Eventbrite.  This makes it easy for people to find them and gives Spark an advantage in organic search, punching above its weight with front page placement for terms like “women’s philanthropy groups.”

Continuing engagement at scale

While 15,000 feels like some level of scale, Spark has many opportunities to grow.  Currently in two cities, there is demand in other markets.  More members means more impact, more organizations helped and more progress toward gender equality.

Scaling priorities include a sustainable fundraising model to support growing the high-touch, high-engagement model that matches members with meaningful volunteer and development opportunities.  It also means addressing strategic questions, including what happens as the millennial cohort ages and whether Spark’s “springboard to philanthropy” role evolves with millennials or adapts to the needs of Gen Z.

In either case, convincing elusive millennials to invest a bit of their precious time and money with your organization is possible if you have the cause, authenticity and engagement model that they’re looking for.


About the Author: Paula Reinman specializes in helping social impact organizations fulfill their missions through effective marketing and communications. You may follow Paula on Twitter at @preinman and at