Grace Toll is a recent UM graduate who serves her community at the United Way of Washtenaw County in a variety of roles. Her blog posts will be published monthly.
We’re asking you what you GAVE today.
100 years. 100 years of Giving, Advocating, Volunteering, and advancing Equity in our community and beyond. United Way of Washtenaw County (UWWC) is more than an organization or a charity -- it’s a safe haven for those in need, a community within the community. UWWC has stayed afloat and thriving for one hundred entire years, but we, and nonprofits all over the world, are facing one critical problem: how do we connect with the young people?
Millennials, Zillenials, Gen Z -- us young people -- typically follow the four principles of GAVE without even realizing it. We’re just missing the connection with nonprofits the generations before us had. Before knowledge of social media categorized us into Young and Old, before Google allowed us to discover that the charity advertised on Twitter previously gave to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations and that sometimes rounding up your purchase to the nearest dollar does the store more good than the charity.
Finding ways to bridge this disconnect is critical, especially in a community like Washtenaw County. Downtown Ann Arbor is a bubble of some of the country’s wealthiest and most intelligent students, but despite this impressive statistic, all of my college friends were shocked when I began work at United Way and shared that Washtenaw County has one of the greatest income inequality rates in the state. Or that ALICE households -- households that make enough to fall above the federal poverty line but not enough to afford household necessities, a category me and almost every single one of my friends fall into -- are constantly in danger of severe financial turmoil. In this way, we need nonprofits for education and resources just as much as the organizations need our dollars and support.
But how can we bridge the persistent disconnect between generations?
It all goes back to the four principles.
This one is a little tricky, because people hear give and instantly think copious amounts of money -- something us young people typically don’t have enough of. But, truly, we want to help. We know we need to help if we want change. During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the Richmond Community Bail Fund raised “more money than they had ever handled before,” with “a huge flood of smaller increments.” Just, please, don’t pressure us to give more than we can realistically afford, and be transparent about where this money will go and how it will actually create change. We’ll give to the organizations we trust, so the key is not only build this trust, but maintain it.
This goes back to the trust factor. Us young people are constantly advocating for the causes we care about, sometimes without even realizing it. We’re passionate, stubborn, determined -- to put it simply, we care. A lot. So if your organization advocates for the same causes, we’ll be a lot more likely to advocate for you. Stay up to date on current events and social change measures, and be vocal about what you fight for and why.
Learn about social media, even if it’s still foreign to you. Keep tabs on what platforms are most popular, and how to use them. One of our grantees from our COVID-19 Recovery Fund, Stand with Trans, made a TikTok account during the pandemic that quickly reached 17,000 followers and created a safe space for transgender youth. If you’re not adjusting your strategy to fit the newer generations, your organization won’t outlast the newer generations.
People hear the word “volunteer,” and they think standing around a cramped soup kitchen with a scratchy hairnet. Young people like flexibility and choice -- we need exciting projects, options for growth and change, and a promise that our time will make a difference. Expand your volunteer opportunities and outreach in whatever ways you can. Constantly create new opportunities and push these in schools, colleges, and especially online. (Did you know our Volunteer Center has a long list of completely virtual opportunities? Or that Catchafire can help boost skill-based volunteering which can be extremely helpful for building college resumes?) And, most importantly, focus on the why, not the how.
A familiar word for us, one of the many vocabulary words we were forced to memorize in high school, but one that resonates a lot more deeply with some than others. But, for the generation that’s been labeled “too political,” it’s safe to say we care about equity maybe more than anything else. We’ve seen the injustices, and we see where we’ve been lied to about the injustices, and we’re ready for fundamental change.
Be honest about your equity work, about what you do to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion within your organization and beyond. Keep up to date about socially relevant issues and challenge yourself to think about them from a younger perspective. And mostly, listen to those you’re trying to connect with. If you won’t take the time to understand why someone uses they pronouns instead of he, they probably won’t take the time to learn more about your DEI strategy.
Much of the disconnect between generations comes from a lack of understanding, which could probably be bridged with just a bit more communication. It’s difficult for us young people to listen to advice on money and careers from the generations that are not thousands of dollars in debt from student loans; on the other hand, it’s difficult for the older generations to understand how Instagram can actually serve as a platform for advocacy when the media spins it as only rich teenagers posting pictures of avocado toast. Nonprofit organizations and people my age typically have common goals, but there remains this barrier of disconnect because of these outside issues. If nonprofits want to stay afloat for the long run, they need us -- and what a lot of people my age don’t understand is we need nonprofits as well.
So, what will you GIVE in the future to help us thrive for 100 more years?