Meow: Cat Pictures, The Web and Fundraising

If there’s one thing that unifies people young and old, it’s cat pictures. That’s why Social Security Works (SSW) employs Cat Actuary. It’s not an actual feline financial whiz, of course, but a light-hearted meme the organization uses to spice up conversations that can get pretty serious.

“Everybody knows the Internet runs on cats so we have some fun with cat memes like Cat Actuary,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of SSW. “If you look through our photos on our Facebook page, you will see a variety of cat pics and cute animal photos that we use to engage our supporters in a fun way,” he said.

“We are oftentimes asking our supports to take action to prevent bad things from happening or to fight long odds to accomplish things that will help everyone. We try to give our supporters some fun stuff, too,” Lawson said.

Fundraisers are always trying to think up their next great fundraising or advocacy message, be it by email, direct mail or social media. Just as important as what channel they use is how they say it to certain audiences.

“There are different attention spans and different ways of getting in front of different generations. Whether older or younger donors, there’s nothing like feeling a connection to the issue, a personal stake,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United in Washington, D.C. “But also having a personal relationship, someone who you trust that money will be well used, asks you personally or makes it a personal engagement,” she said.

One thing that’s working more with younger people is that immediate need and a smaller dollar ask. “It’s easy to text a number, respond with a $5 pledge if there’s a threat, quickly with small amounts,” she said. Older adults generally depend more on hard copy, a more involved ask, and not as short and quick as social media or electronically.

People are much more used to shorter communications, whether that’s via Twitter, email or texting, trying to get the message condensed down “so there’s still a heart to it,” Butts said. “It really depends on the medium you’re using. It’s still important is to listen to people. Ask them questions, survey, but listen to what they think is important, what they hope is going to happen as a result of their activism or contribution,” she said.

“It’s kind of easy to assume older on email, younger on social media and Facebook. The truth is, everyone is kind of everywhere now. You don’t want to assume,” said Marc Abanto, deputy director of communications at Blue State Digital (BSD) in Washington, D.C. It’s important to study what it is supporters do versus presuming, he said. The first question staff members have to ask is: “Do we have the info we need to effectively communicate with our supporters?”

One way to glean that information is through quizzes, and not just for younger prospects. “We’d start out sending them to everyone. A certain person’s demographic is one of only many things to influence interactions with organizations. It’s possible that a Baby Boomer happens to be passionate about issues you’re working on and wants to demonstrate that knowledge when they can,” he said.

Giving people a variety of asks is important but you also want to build in a ladder of engagement, with actions that people need to take that can help understand what certain people care about, and use that to bring them up the ladder, Abanto said. “You do that a couple of times, go back and look at who’s taking or not taking actions, and make decisions on future communications based on that,” he said. You might find that people 65 and older don’t like quizzes but based on what a charity is doing, they’re learning from those actions rather than going on assumptions about certain groups.

Morris Animal Foundation (MAF) is looking for new donors, and particularly younger donors. Those acquired via direct mail are likely to be similar to current donors: about 51 to 75 years old.

So in the past year, the Denver, Colo.-based charity has aimed to acquire new, younger donors through an online petition site, with a pledge to end pet cancer. “Attracting younger donors and supporters is important,” said Leslie Hansen, director, annual giving, at Morris Animal Foundation. “They’re passionate, they want to make a difference, and also connected to socially and online.”

MAF acquired about 10,000 names in matter of weeks and continued the conversation via email and Facebook. About 7,000 of them had a Facebook account and MAF started a targeted advertising to that group. Engagement rates are two and three times as high as typical rates on Facebook and MAF is tracking the group and testing its messaging to convert them to donors, Hansen said.

The conversion rate is about 0.60 percent. “That’s not great but we’re really excited about the engagement on Facebook. We know they’re listening to us. It’s not just, ‘We want your donation,’” she said.

The highest concentration of MAF’s Facebook followers (roughly 38 percent) are between the ages of 45 and 64. “With traditional direct mail acquisition, that is where we are targeting, similar donors to what we already have. We know what current donors are responding to. As we do direct mail acquisition, those are the age ranges that we are attracting,” Hansen said.

An online petition site asks supporters to stand for something greater than themselves, Hansen said, and they aim to leverage that emotion and desire to act immediately. “It’s urgent, compelling, and it dealt with an issue that the younger generation knows about,” she said, adding that 80 percent of households have pets. Of those, 60 percent also have children at home. “Kids are growing up with animals and an appreciation for pets,” Hansen said. “We’re able to get younger generations engaged,” she said.

“The messaging is simple. Folks can relate to it. It’s a strategic choice to make that messaging be clear, simple and emotional. Specifically for the petition site, we wanted it to be easy to digest and understand. We were hoping younger generations would grasp onto that,” Hansen said.

Social Security is thought of as a senior-focused program, but it cuts across all generations. “When talking about danger to the program, we want to talk about it in a unified voice because there are things that are intergenerational, and recognizing that’s the case is important,” said Lawson. “At same time, we do want to talk to our supporters in ways that they can appreciate, ways that are accessible to them.”

One of the largest ways for SSW to communicate is through its 850,000 email list, but it doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to speak to different generations in different ways, said Lawson, because that’s “the most unified channel. It’s a collection of really engaged people who’ve been with us since the founding.” SSW gets about one-third of its budget through small-dollar contributions, primarily solicited online along with several foundation funders, the largest of which is Atlantic Philanthropies.

The Millennial Project is SSW’s proactive strategy for engaging younger people. The organization goes out to college campuses for training and workshops in forums where their target audience is located. “Meeting people where they are, that’s an important part of it,” Lawson said.

“We don’t go into that world and say, Millennials like to say that, seniors like to see that. “We go by action. That’s key to segmenting lists, because putting together campaigns, we could be very wrong about how different generations want to be engaged on things,” Lawson said. Traditional biases, such as old people are bad at technology while young people are good at it, “that’s just not the case across the board. Some of our most savvy online supports are seniors, some are younger folks. At the same time, we’re recognizing there are generational differences in youth and technology,” he said.

Lawson often runs into preconceived notions that he’ll be lecturing millennials about having to spend a lot of time thinking about their retirement and planning 40 years into the future. While young people should understand the situation, Lawson doesn’t want it to stop them from going to school or taking entrepreneurial risks because of it. “We want people to understand but it’s counterproductive for people in their youth to be worried about what’s happening way out in the future.”