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Know Your Audience: Storytelling Through the Generations

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By Sandra Larkin, Writer, Fundraiser, Communicator

Because we are literally hardwired to learn through stories, storytelling is perhaps the single most powerful communication tool available to fundraisers. Stories stimulate not only the analytical parts of our brains, but those that process sensory information, memory and emotion. Inside our heads, we share the experiences that happen in the story; we hear the crowd’s roar, smell popcorn and hotdogs, see the halftime band marching onto the field, lean forward with anticipation as the ball soars through the air.

A well-told story connects your donor, on an emotional level, to the way their gift can change a life, or change the world. By evoking imagination and empathy, a story makes giving a meaningful experience, not just a tax deduction. But not all stories are created equal, so telling the right story is crucial. “Know your audience” is a fundamental rule of communication, and the listener’s own experiences create the context in which your story is understood.

Many of these experiences are generational. The baby boomers grew up in a different era than their parents, who survived the Depression and a global war. Millennials were born into world saturated with technologies that didn’t exist when their parents were children. Any organization that does long-term planning and wants to create a pipeline of younger donors needs to consider how history, economics, and demographics influence the interests and motivations of prospects.

Please note that dates for the start and end for each generation are approximate at best; there are no clear lines or definitions, and individual experiences within each cohort may vary greatly.

Baby Boomers: great expectations

Born between 1945 and the early 1960s, boomers still dominate the economy by sheer force of numbers. Within five years, fully half of the U.S. population will be over 50. Boomers grew up in an expanding economy, expected to do better than their Depression-era parents, and wanted to change the world.

They still have great expectations. As a generation that celebrated youth (remember “never trust anyone over thirty”?), they don’t want to think of themselves as old. Many regard retirement as an opportunity not to relax, but to pursue personal interests and focus on goals other than wealth. This generation remember marching against the Vietnam War and for civil rights for minorities and women, and they still want to make a difference. Boomers respond to stories that remind them of their generation’s past successes, and assure them that they are still vital, needed, and capable of contributing more than just money. They are also known as the Me Generation, who turned to meditation, Eastern religions and self-help books in search of personal fulfillment and self-actualization. Make sure your biggest donors see themselves as the protagonists of personally meaningful stories.

Finally, don’t forget that they grew up in an analog world, where phones didn’t fit in your pocket and an IBM Selectric typewriter was high-tech office equipment.
They’ve adapted well to technology, but it’s not their native country, so print and direct mail still play an important role. Make all your communications, both online and in print, easy for older eyes to read, and consider that all those rock concerts back in they day contributed to hearing loss in the present. Just don’t mention it—the boomer anthem is still Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”

Generation X: the middle child

GenX followed the boom, arriving on the scene anytime from 1960 to about 1980. Smaller in numbers and less well-defined than the boomers, they’ve lived in a roller-coaster economy: from the inflation of the Carter era and the 1987 market crash to the dot-com bubble and the most recent recession, driven by the stock market free-fall of 2008 and resulting implosion of real-estate values.

Professionally, they’re stuck between reluctant-to-retire boomers and up-and-coming tech-savvy millenials, and many are unlikely to be as economically secure as their parents. After decades of corporate downsizing, GenX people know that job security is a myth, and in their families both parents are employed, only partly for financial reasons. GenX women grew up at the intersection of feminism and a rising divorce rate, and pursue careers for both personal satisfaction and economic self-sufficiency. Autonomy and self-reliance are highly valued by GenX, who never expected the world to be handed to them on a silver platter. They are hardworking team players, but are also concerned about work/life balance. GenX was also the first generation to experience the internet as part of daily life, and are used to shopping, socializing and finding information online.

Cynical and skeptical, the members of GenX value efficiency and transparency. They want to see the numbers along with the stories, and between working hard and raising children, they don’t have time to waste. They’ll do their research online before they choose to give, so be sure to keep them in the loop. Appeal to Generation X with results-oriented stories that let them see for themselves how effectively your organization is fulfilling its mission.

This cohort has been largely ignored by the media, marketers and analysts in favor of the larger boomer and millennial generations. A healthy dose of recognition and appreciation for GenX donors will pay off in long-term loyalty to your institution.

Millenials: entitled activists

Also known as Generation Y, Millenials were born between 1980 and 2000. They take things for granted that older generations don’t: gay rights, feminism, racial diversity and technology have always been part of the landscape. Raised by boomers and older GenX parents, their childhoods were structured and supervised, focused on education and filled with scheduled activities designed to enrich their potential. However, their working lives have been dominated by economic crises. When the oldest entered the work force, the bursting of the dotcom bubble and 9/11 were current events, while younger millenials have been hit hard by the Great Recession. Many in this group are underemployed, working at low-wage jobs rather than building careers, burdened by student-loan debt and moving back in with mom and dad as a result.

Opinions differ on their characteristics. One point of view sees them as lazy, materialistic and spoiled, a “trophy generation” raised to expect praise just for showing up. To some extent this is true, but it is balanced by their idealism and optimism. Millenials care deeply about issues like the environment and social justice, and are eager to make the future a better place. Growing up, they were told, “you can do anything,” and surrounded by stories of people who made their first million before age 30. This sense of themselves as ‘special’ translates into an entrepreneurial approach to doing good, and a disregard of hierarchies and authority. It also means that work for a cause can be as personally satisfying to millenials as professional success—and easier to come by.

While millenials are passionate about causes, they’re wary of institutions. As ‘digital natives’ whose lives are experienced and displayed online, they can easily find and connect with like-minded peers regardless of location. Online life also provides a global perspective and plentiful information about issues that lie well beyond their own neighborhoods. Many are fundraisers as well as donors, using creative approaches and new technologies to encourage their peers to give. Millenials want to donate their time, talents and ideas as well as cash, and have those gifts appreciated and recognized.

To inspire millenials, tell stories that help them identify on a personal level with both individuals who need help and those providing solutions. Visual storytelling through photos and video is especially powerful with this group, and seeing people of their own age make a difference helps them believe in their own power to create change. For millenials, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

Recognizing how a donor’s concerns and motivations have been shaped by social, economic, and historical change will help you see your institution’s needs from their perspective. When the stories you tell reflect their understanding of the world, donors feel recognized, understood and valued. Your accomplishments and needs are the topic, but remember that compelling stories are really all about the audience.

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