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Want to engage millennials? Don’t call them “activists.”

April 5, 2017

It’s no secret that millennials (those born 1980-2000) want to do good. To this generation, social issue engagement is much more than an action; instead, it is engrained in their very identities. They want to give their time, money and skill to the causes they’re passionate about, and they want to feel that their involvement makes a difference.


We’ve heard these statements from millennials themselves, and we have reported on them throughout the entirety of the Millennial Impact Project.


During Achieve's 2016 research, however, one trend emerged that surprised us – and it all had to do with one little word: Activist.


What’s in a name?

While the cause sector often uses the word “activist” as a call to participate (e.g., to actively join in doing good for an issue), other uses of the word sound much more negative. The dictionary definition of activism is “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action, especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue,” and synonyms of the word include “militant,” “zealot” and “protester.”


Not exactly a positive connotation.


From the qualitative methods phase of our research, we learned that millennials have adopted a view of activism that aligns with those negative descriptors, and to put it bluntly, they want nothing to do with it.

Does refuting a label = less involvement?

Although this generation shies away from a title like activism, it doesn’t mean they’re not involved with social issues. It’s important to note, however, that millennial involvement looks very different than that of generations past.


The Washington Post puts it like this:


“Millennials have come of age at a time when it’s easier to express views on issues without taking to the streets – and not just through social media. They can buy organic food in grocery stores or ‘Made in America’ clothing at a retailer. Or they can steer their investment dollars toward companies that comport with their values, a practice known as “social” or “impact” investing. A recent study by the U.S. Trust found that millennials were much more likely than their elders to see investment decisions ‘as a way to express my social, political or environmental values.’”


And therein lies the answer. Millennials don’t view cause engagement as its own activity. They incorporate it into their identities and actions, driving decisions like how to spend their money or allocate their time. Millennial cause engagement isn’t a singular protest or march. It’s part of this generation’s lifestyle.

Then how do I draw millennials to my cause?

1.  Speak to the issue. Millennials aren’t driven to a cause through loyalty to an organization, a political party or even a candidate. They’re drawn to get involved with such groups specifically because they’re interested in and care about the social issue that organization is working to address. To attract millennials to your cause, you first have to find those who have an intrinsic interest in the work you’re doing.

2.  Allow for self-education. Next, you have to make information available to them. Like generations past, millennials educate themselves on causes using the tools available to them. Today, those tools are digital. Make it easy for this generation of change-makers to find out about your organization through your website, social channels and more, and be as transparent as possible.


3.  Show immediate impact. When individuals believe they can make an immediate difference, they’re much more likely to become engaged. Once you’ve collected followers, it’s time to activate them. Offer an action that allows the millennial to feel that they made a difference right now.

4.  Ditch the labels. Though we talk about this generation holistically, millennials don’t want to be boxed in by labels or traditional definitions. While it’s important to know trends among this group as a whole, it’s much more important to understand individualistic traits and values of the millennials within your audience.

When activating millennial followers, offer multiple ways to get involved, ones they can tailor to their own behavioral preferences and make their own.


Millennials continue to prove they care about and are involved in creating social change, a trend that can only benefit your cause. But to truly captivate the interest and involvement of this generation of change-makers, your approach must be transparent, show immediate impact and individualistic in nature.


And above all, choose your words wisely.

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