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Want to engage more millennials? Arizona State University Foundation is doing things differently to embrace the “differences” this new generation brings. Mark Antonucci (center), ASU Foundation assistant vice president and chief of staff, launched an innovative approach to activating industry-leading disrupters and influencers like Justin Graham (left) and Amber Martinez (right), tapping into their desire to have an impact.

How to engage millennials: the next generation donors

By Gretchen Buhlig and Mark Antonucci

illennials, who grew up amidst rapid change, are often disruptors in their industries. They think differently, are motivated by different things, and they want to have a global impact. Within the world of philanthropy, they bring a different perspective than the “traditional” donor, yet the way universities engage them is mostly traditional.

At Arizona State University Foundation, we embraced the “difference” that millennials bring and went straight to them. (Well, not all of them; Arizona State University produces thousands of graduates annually!) Instead, we pursued influencers and industry changers, and we gave them a seat right next to the ASU Foundation Board. The initial members are awarded and recognized as industry leaders by trade and business publications, but they weren’t standing out at ASU. They provide insight and guidance on how they want to be connect with ASU. For example, they are interested in seeing more online options to donate.

The recently established Next Generation Council is made up of eight ASU alumni who received degrees since 2002, during the tenure of ASU’s president, Michael Crow. The purpose of the council is to develop future foundation board members and philanthropists by incorporating their perspectives into current foundation board decisions. The council is expected to grow in the coming months as the founding members design how their input will be shared with, and integrated into, the board of directors’ decisions.

ASU’s charter emphasizes being “measured not by whom it excludes, but rather by whom it includes and how they succeed.” We believe that to adopt this metric, the board must be inclusive of input and direction from all generations and interests — even if they offer contrary points of view. In fact, it’s precisely because they bring contrary points of view that want to engage them.

The council members who were selected built their professional successes through ASU resources and experiences, but most of them were not engaged with ASU. That changed dramatically after being asked to join the council. We found that when this group was given a seat at the table and treated as equals, whatever they lacked in experience, they made up for in passion. Ultimately, this opportunity inspired council members to reengage with their alma mater. In fact, every member has become a donor since joining.

In asking for their time and talent, we found the treasure came without a formal solicitation. That powerfully demonstrates how millennials will contribute with an “all-in” approach if they feel like they are asked to help make an impact.

ASU’s belief in integrating generations into the governing and philanthropic process is the reason why this column is written by two people. Mark, a millennial, developed the idea for the council and is a member. Gretchen represents a traditional philanthropic professional — one eager to help shepherd future leaders. Thanks to the “Trusteeship” editors for supporting our desire to share our story in a way that bridges the past and the future, honoring both.

Our collaboration on this initiative was possible because our culture encourages employees to explore new ways of doing things and not fear failure. Together, we recognized that we could get excited about engaging with the new generation of innovators. We saw that if we are the New American University, we must be representative of what we say we are. And we asked, if the university’s goal is to produce innovators and entrepreneurs, then why aren’t we involving everyone in the conversation — especially those showing successes in their careers?

So, we went to the foundation’s board and said since we are the New American University, we need to more proactively embrace this next generation as ambassadors for ASU and the foundation, and be willing to learn from them. The foundation’s board and members were receptive. Fast forward to this summer’s board retreat — the NextGen Council will be included, and both groups will work collaboratively to develop the next campaign. Why not build the next campaign from the same paradigm set by our charter and be as inclusive as possible? Why not, indeed.

We learned some important lessons along the way, lessons we hope other institutions may benefit from. And we are excited about what the future holds. As we are learning, millennials do think differently, and they are motivated by different things — not the least of which is a desire to have an impact. And if that’s disruptive, that’s a good thing.

Gretchen Buhlig is Arizona State University Foundation chief executive officer. Mark Antonucci is Arizona State University Foundation chief of staff and assistant vice president.

About ASU Foundation

The foundation, a subsidiary of ASU Enterprise Partners, is a private, nonprofit organization that raises and invests private contributions to Arizona State University. It is one of Arizona’s oldest nonprofits.

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ASU Foundation, one of Arizona’s oldest nonprofits, raises and invests private contributions to Arizona State University. https://www.asufoundation.org/

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