United Way looking to connect with Pittsburgh’s millennials

United Way looking to connect with Pittsburgh’s millennials

By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Shakita Trigg, 35, has been involved with United Way since she was in her 20s, living in Columbus, Ohio, and working as an industrial engineer for United Parcel Service.

At the United Way of Central Ohio, she reviewed funding proposals and served on several leadership committees. She developed such a passion for the organization that when she relocated to Pittsburgh in 2010 for a job with FedEx Ground, among the first calls Ms. Trigg made was to United Way of Allegheny County, where she joined the Women’s Leadership Council and started volunteering at events.

What she didn’t expect, said Ms. Trigg, who is now a project manager with FedEx Ground in Moon, was to end up sitting at United Way board meetings alongside FedEx Ground’s chief executive, Henry Maier, 61.

Though she’s a generation younger than many on the charity’s board — which reads largely like a who’s who of top leaders from Pittsburgh organizations, including Peoples Natural Gas, Eat’n Park, Bayer Material Science, UPMC, and even the Diocese of Pittsburgh represented by Bishop David Zubik — it was no accident when United Way last year invited Ms. Trigg and Michael Denove, 34, a senior manager with Ernst & Young’s audit practice, to become the youngest of its 44 members.

Their presence at the table is part of the organization’s strategic initiative to figure out how to engage those of the millennial generation who are in their 20s and 30s and whose attitudes about charitable giving are radically different than those of their parents and grandparents.

Many millennials aren’t even sure how to give or volunteer at United Way because they aren’t familiar with its storied brand, according to research conducted for United Way at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We were looking ahead at how United Way needs to advance to be successful in the year 2020, and we knew that, by then, 50 percent of the workforce would be made up of next generation millennials,” said Linda Jones, vice president of workplace campaigns for the local United Way, which raised nearly $34 million in its 2014-15 fundraising appeal.

“We started taking a look at how millennials view philanthropy and we knew we had to make some shifts.”

A new approach to charity

Millennials, many of whom grew up with a strong sense of community service through school or church projects, freely acknowledge they approach giving differently than past generations. They want to connect directly to causes by giving their time as well as dollars and to come away with a strong sense of how their money is being spent.

Most millennials also seek out giving opportunities mainly through the Internet and social media, and are more likely to pledge donations to nonprofits because friends recommend they participate in hands-on activities at those organizations.

“Millennials don’t necessarily donate [to charities] because their parents or grandparents did,” said Mr. Denove, a Penn Hills native who has worked for E&Y since he graduated from Penn State University 12 years ago. “They want to know the impact of how their dollar is being used.”

Like Ms. Trigg, he was recruited in early 2014 to join United Way’s millennial steering committee, which includes 52 individuals — mostly ages 22-35 — who represent startups, established companies and nonprofits.

The steering committee proposed that two of its members be appointed to United Way’s board.

“It’s a diverse mix of people — some of whom had contact with United Way and some who did nothing with us before,” said Kristen Rieck, 27, who was hired last year as United Way’s next generation engagement manager.

“We’re using this group as our rudder and asking them: What are the things you’re looking for when you get involved with a nonprofit? And what gets you excited about sharing and telling your friends?

“Millennials really want to be part of the conversation. They don’t want to be spoken to; they want to take a lot of ownership. They want to plan and own the event and find out what the outcomes look like. It’s not all that different than what other people want.”

The steering committee meets monthly for about 90 minutes at United Way’s offices in the Strip District and has launched a campaign, www.myunitedwaypgh.org, where it promotes opportunities to volunteer and attract other potential donors in the age group to become involved.

Last month, for instance, the United Way eXchange held a TED-talk style gathering at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty that featured a panel including Matt Katase, a co-founder of Brew Gentlemen Beer Co., Braddock; and Pittsburgh Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak.

On Monday evening, United Way will sponsor a volunteer event targeted to millennials at Wigle Whiskey in the Strip District. At that event, booked to capacity last week, participants can sample the venue’s spirits while they assemble “Be There” kits to help motivate children to attend school. Admission is a book appropriate for a middle-school student or a $5 donation to purchase a book.

In addition, the group holds informal breakfasts where millennials can converse with more seasoned executives such as Brooks Broadhurst, senior vice president of Eat’n Park, and Robert DeMichiei, executive vice president and chief financial officer of UPMC.

“We created the eXchange component but didn’t want to call it networking,” said Christy Uffelman, 38, who is a partner in the Pittsburgh office of consulting firm Align Leadership and a member of the millennial steering committee. “It’s inspired dialogue with leaders, and it’s always over food and always casual. But there are no Power Points.”

At the breakfast sessions, Ms. Uffelman said, the executive guests, “share their mistakes and lessons, but we won’t force mentoring to come out of it. That’s old-style.”

The more millennials view United Way as a way to connect with like-minded peers and causes they care about, the more inclined they’ll be to stay involved as future donors, she said. “Millennials do not fall in line. If there’s no personal connection to a charity or nonprofit, they won’t give just because the boss tells them to.”

The local United Way is one of 10 regional United Way chapters undertaking initiatives for millennials, said Ms. Rieck. Others include Boston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Central New Jersey.

A disconnect discovered

In 2013, before it recruited the millennial steering committee, United Way collaborated with CMU’s H. John Heinz III College and its Tepper School of Business on a study of how younger generations perceived United Way and how best to appeal to their sense of giving.

The survey generated over 5,400 responses from individuals, including approximately 1,000 who self-identified as millennials and who worked at for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

The project raised United Way’s awareness “that we need to do a better job at connecting with millennials in a way they are receptive to,” said Kristin Boehne, assistant to Robert Nelkin, president of United Way.

Among the findings were that almost 99 percent of millennials volunteer based on their interests, 17 percent volunteer at least once per month, and they are seeking easy-to-use digital platforms and social media to access volunteer opportunities.

But while many millennials were interested in signature United Way causes such as youth, education and basic needs for financially struggling families, 59 percent were not aware of United Way’s mission and 60 percent were not aware of United Way having a presence on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Among millennials, 43 percent said they did not donate or volunteer for United Way because they didn’t know how to engage with the organization.

“A social media presence and getting senior executives on to that social media is really effective” for nonprofits such as United Way in generating interest among millennials, said Jason Franklin, executive director of Bolder Giving, a New York firm that consults with donors of all ages about how their philanthropy can be more effective. His firm also consults with financial institutions such as PNC’s wealth management unit.

“Millennials are looking for and used to getting a stream of snippets about an organization versus an in-depth, annual report. So an organization that’s used to working with older donors and which explains once a year how everything is going now every week needs to send an e-blast or a social media post about what they’re doing.”

Despite all its recent focus on millennials, United Way isn’t abandoning its traditional workplace campaigns, said Ms. Jones.

“We don’t want to re-invent the workplace campaign because we know it raises nearly $34 million,” she said. “But we have to be more inclusive of the next generation if we want it to grow to $35 million and more.”

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.