Millenials give to charity in dramatically different ways than their predecessors.
Last month, The Chronicle of Philanthropy conducted an in-depth study on the future of philanthropy in America. The study looked at America’s four adult generations (WWII, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials) and how they give to charity. As if there was any doubt, Millennials give very differently than their predecessors.
Whereas the elder three generations ranked “my place of worship” as the top cause to which they donate, Millennials placed it third (32% of Millennials claim to have no religious ties). Millennials, on the other hand, are more likely to give to “human rights and international development” than their predecessors.
The fact that Millennials are more concerned about global issues than previous generations should come as no surprise. This generation’s formative years were spent interacting with technology on a very personal level: for older Millennials, it was acclimating themselves to nascent personal computer hardware and software; for younger Millennials, it was immersing themselves in an internet that evaporated natural barriers with the rest of the world. The very nature of Millennials’ upbringing accustomed them to have a greater sensitivity to conditions abroad than any other previous generation. It would make sense that Millennials are more concerned about global issues.
But at the expense of what? In what might be the study’s most unsettling statistic, of the four generations surveyed, Millennials were the least likely to list “local social service” as a cause they support. Less than 20% of Millennials ranked this as a “top cause,” compared with 37% of the WWII generation, 36% of Baby Boomers, and 29% of Gen Xers.
Now, it’s possible that this is nothing more than a function of age. It could be that as Millennials age they will begin to prize “local social service” (I’m not sure of The Chronicle’s exact definition, but I think it’s probably intuitive) more than they do now. Youth, after all, seems to incline a person towards an “anything is possible” mentality. And what bigger dream could a person have than to impact the world on a global scale (something technology has put within reach)? It could be that our global focus moves inversely with age, but I’m not so sure that’s a given. Alexis de Tocqueville would agree.
I think we tread into dangerous territory if we assume that our nation’s future leaders, as they age, will just naturally come to prioritize local social service. Living in a nation founded on an ideal of service, it would be foolish to let its decline slip from our awareness. Democracy thrives on civic participation in community affairs. If not for an enduring culture of service that has permeated the population for the past 200+ years, America wouldn’t be where it is today. Indeed, as the expectation and desire to give back to one’s own community declines, so too will America.
The risk of not being concerned about – or remaining indifferent to – local social service’s placement on Millennials’ list of most important causes is that it never does become a priority for Millennials. The risk is that Millennials remain near-sighted philanthropists, drawn exclusively to issues abroad because those are the only ones they are equipped to see, leaving them virtually blind to the needs right in front of their own eyes. The risk is that the plumbing that has kept this nation sustained for so long begins to fail, the pipes burst, and the infrastructure collapses. Our nation crumbles from within, as years of neglect and inattention has made us ill equiped to address the needs of our communities.
You can see the tension here. It’s not that Millennials’ concern for global issues is a bad thing, or even that it’s unwise. It’s simply a matter of the extent to which their global focus encroaches upon and overtakes their care for what is local.
Distinguishing between concern and responsibility is one practical way to correct the imbalance. Another is to remind ourselves of our finite nature and to respect the limitations we’re born with.
Being finite means we can’t be in two places at once. Sure, technology gives us the perception that we can, but life is measured by depth of sense experience. The experiences that engage our senses most fully are the ones that sink deepest into our being. We remember best the events that affect our senses the most. Reflect on your own history for a moment. What comes to mind? Events that are rooted in a particular place and time, no doubt. In other words, events that you experienced in person.
We remember in-person encounters more than we do interactions with a screen for a reason: in-person anything engages more of our senses, and therefore it engages more of us. This truth points us to a greater reality: we are, by nature, relational beings, and relationships, just like community, are most fully realized in person.
We need to recognize that we were meant to invest in the things right in front of our own eyes. This means appreciating the unique value of in-person relationships; namely, that they are reciprocal in nature: both the person being helped and the one helping leave with far more than if the two parties “transact” from a distance. This isn’t to say remote interactions shouldn’t happen at all, only that their frequency should be minimized as much as possible.
We don’t ask our local community to serve us, only to turn our back on it entirely and give our philanthropy to communities abroad. Part of being in a community means that we give back to it in some way, out of a desire to see it flourish. Do you feel more compelled to help the poor in western Tanzania than you do those in your own suburb? Relocating yourself to Tanzania and making that your local community will do more for them and for you than anything you could possibly do at a distance.
At the heart of this all is reminding ourselves – and especially Millennials – that we were meant for community, and community is most fully realized in personal relationships. Respecting this truth means prioritizing relationships, especially in-person relationships. Whether it’s volunteering at the county fair or supporting an orphan in India, our philanthropy should come out of a desire for relationship with our fellow (wo)man. To practice this maxim is not only patriotic, it is philanthropic. It is “the love of humanity” done right.
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–originally published on Philanthro.pe