Communicating across the generations

With five generations still working side-by-side in many organizations, nonprofits must be able to communicate in a meaningful way despite their different values, experiences, historical backdrop and expertise with technology.

The first step is to analyze the organization’s donor and volunteer base and segment it by generation. Consider the perspectives of each group, and understand what motivates, inspires and compels their decision making. Leveraging this information will enable you to target your communications more effectively and efficiently.  What do you need to know?

Understanding the generations

The Silent Generation

What they care about: The oldest generation still holds to a deeply embedded value system that honors family, patriotism, faith, loyal connections, heroism, and respects leadership and continuity. Interestingly, one of the only major technology breakthroughs for the Silent Generation was the radio! Much is yet to come in this area, but it is still decades away.

How to communicate: Personal letters, phone calls and a genuine interest in this audience will provide a strong response. They often prefer to write checks, so provide that option when asking for financial support, and they appreciate being acknowledged so do not overlook thanking them for their commitment.

The Baby Boomers

What they care about: On the dark side, this generation was shaped by the Viet Nam War and the protests that it generated, political assassinations, hippies, the violence of the SDS. On the bright side this generation has always had a deep and abiding commitment to changing the world. College educated and professionally successfully, they are motivated by the belief that they can achieve any goal they set for themselves.  The exciting technology for Baby Boomers was the emergence of the TV.

How to communicate: This generation likes to belong to groups, to build a sense of community, attend meetings and brain storming. As such they are great volunteers, are frequently happy to join committees and actively participate in conversations and strategic planning.  Engage them whenever you can and be sure to ask them for introductions to their colleagues. This is the generation that is proud to be honored at a nonprofit annual gala and they are often eager to assume a leadership role.

Although they have become accustomed to technology, they will still write checks along with using more current technology tools. They will visit your website, friend you on Facebook and connect with you on LinkedIn, but still prefer in-person networking for relationship building. Following the examples of the coming generations, Baby Boomers have shown a strong appetite for emails and prefer that platform over most others along with Facebook (where they keep track of their extended families!) and Instagram to remain connected with the community.


What they care about:  This generation have somewhat lost the idealism that defines Baby Boomers. They’ve seen violence, living through Columbine and other personal violent acts. Dubbed the latch key generation, they’ve had to be self-reliant, taking responsibility for themselves in a way that their predecessors did not. As such they pride themselves on being practical and realistic and self- reliant. The PC was the technology that emerged during this group’s coming of age.

How to communicate: Knowing that this group is not wearing rose colored glasses, the nonprofit should appeal to their focus on about data, impact and measureable results when seeking their financial support and resources.  They understand the concept of being responsible and as a result are likely to be strong board members and volunteers.

Other than the millennials, this is the group that is most technology savvy.  They are comfortable with online giving, using all social media channels and other technology based platforms espoused by the nonprofits but they still lag a bit behind the successor generations who were literally born into the age of technology.


What they care about: This is the generation that has turned the world upside down. Bigger even than their Baby Boomer parents and grandparents, the millennials have forged a new path for themselves. They have never known a time without technology invading every aspect of their lives. Their Smart Phones give them instant access to the world of the Internet – to news, to calamities, to successes, to community events, to financial data, to business resources, and to each other.  Messages move around the world at the speed of light and You Tube and Google and Wikipedia offer answers to any imaginable question.

 How to communicate: This impatient generation doesn’t want a phone call, a letter, or even an email.  They definitely do not want to listen to a voice mail message on their mobile devices and they will most likely not return your call even if you leave one.

A quick text is fine – but the message needs to be brief, relevant, and actionable. They will visit your Facebook page often and follow you on Twitter, Instagram or SnapChat and may watch a short video– if you add real value in your messaging. They are not interested in the committees and meetings and agendas and reports that have attracted previous generations. They see global challenges and want to act – and they have the tools to do so. They value creativity, smart advice, teamwork, commitment to the world community, feedback and flexibility.  So give them what they ask for in order to attract and retain their interest and loyalty.  When you share your story and your mission with them, make it personal.

Don’t invite them to the gala but do ask them to volunteer for an important project at the food bank!

How can you connect?

Understanding the historical setting that frames each generation can help your nonprofit focus your outreach in a more meaningful way, accommodating the preferences of each generation and finding a way to encourage them based on their core values and competencies.