Posted September 1st, 2004

Are You Ready for “My Generation”?

In the past, many planned giving marketing efforts exposed their entire constituency to the same message. In recent years, however, a growing number of program managers are better segmenting their constituency to target the right people with the right messages at the right times in their lives.

Programs with many thousands of donors and a larger staff now often find it more economical and productive to target their planned giving marketing materials to specific subsets of the larger universe.

Grouped by time frames

Consider the ever-changing pool of 65-year-old planned giving prospects. Every year a new group of persons reaches this demographic milestone. Grouping those persons born within various time frames allows the creation of “generations,” which are bound together by certain common experiences. These different generations are actually made up of many different sub-groups. However, the threads of commonly shared experiences help to collectively shape each generation.

This, in turn, can affect how they may react to your marketing activities. To better understand this concept and its application, consider the following groups of newly minted 65-year-olds at various intervals: In 1955, 65-year-olds were born in 1890; in 1975 they were born in 1910; in 1995 they were born in 1930; and next year’s group was born in 1940.

Recognizing common denominators

Let’s consider some of the clusters in more detail. One cluster, “the oldest old,” would include those persons age 80 and older who were born before 1924. While relatively small in number, this group represents the first “great generation” of planned giving prospects. It is not uncommon for members of this group to have memories of relatives who fought in the Civil War and whose entire lives paralleled the explosion of the technical innovations, from early flight to landings on Mars. Nevertheless, they are still more likely to relate to a pocketknife than a pocket calculator.

World Wars were the primary events that changed their lives and the world in which they lived. Over the past several decades, this older group has been a source for most of the planned gifts received by America’s charities. IRS studies indicate that, today, more maturing gifts still come from people in this generation than from all those under age 70 who die and leave gifts to charity. They are to be commended and treated with great respect.

An active generation

The second group we will look at were born between 1925 and 1942. Members of this generation were children during the “Roaring Twenties,” the Great Depression, or WWII. The stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression continued through the 1930s. Many in this group saw farms and businesses foreclosed, people out of work, soup lines, bank closings, etc.

This group composes the major segment of most planned giving marketing efforts today. They range in age from 62 to 79. As a whole they tend to be healthier and more active than the first generation we discussed. However, a growing number are experiencing the impact of aging. Many worked and accumulated assets during the period of unparalleled economic expansion in post-World War II America.

They accumulated more wealth than any generation before them. However, note that most of them are retired and are living on incomes derived from what may be increasingly conservative investment strategies that have experienced reduced returns the past few years.

As children during the Depression, they were less likely to be directly aware of, or affected in the same fashion by, the fiscal struggles of that time as was the previous generation.

Movies and newsreels brought the world to their towns. The size of this generation is much smaller than the previous group because birth rates dipped between the onset of the Depression and the end of World War II. They are concerned about their future retirement and health care needs.

Because this group is smaller than the prior generation, they are sometimes referred to as the “silent generation.”

The baby boomers

Then we have the “baby boomers.” Every seven and a half seconds, another one of this group turns 50, and estate planning is joining financial planning as a hot topic of discussion for them. Generally in their peak earning years, some have fallen victim to corporate downsizing, and the leading edge of this group is beginning to consider retirement. Larger than any previous generation, baby boomers are likely to redefine retirement and expect the world to change to meet their needs. They are also likely to respond differently than the “greatest” or “silent” generations before them.

Generation-based marketing

In applying the concept of generation-based marketing to the world of planned giving, some lessons may be borrowed from Madison Avenue. However, each lesson should be implemented carefully and with sensitivity. To be more effective in communication efforts, try to understand those events that helped shape and define a particular generation and apply them within the context of your mission.

For example, in a college setting, consider studying the yearbooks for the time period of the classes with whom you are communicating for photographs and references to use in marketing materials.

In a hospital setting, if you were previously known as the “Crippled Children’s Hospital,” an institution that dealt primarily with polio or other specific medical concerns, recognize that many of your older donors and auxiliary members may still identify to a degree with your former mission.

For a cause-related organization you may wish to feature quotations from or other references to a well-known leader from past years with whom your donors may more readily identify than with current leadership.

The goal is not to be misleading or manipulative in your communications; it is to make references to which your constituents of various ages can more easily relate. Acknowledging a former mission and linking today’s current mission to that former mission may be an effective way to bridge “generation gaps” that might otherwise hamper the effectiveness of your communication efforts.

Matching media with messages

Matching the audience to the appropriate media will grow in importance over time. For the foreseeable future, the vast majority of planned giving prospects will continue to respond to print media. After all, these were generations that received handwritten letters, and they continue to prefer their communications in print.

More modern media—such as the telephone, television, radio, and Internet—can be used to reach smaller numbers of select groups.

Consider generation-based marketing as a valuable concept to assist you in reaching the right people at the right times when they are considering various gifts to support your organization. By more carefully matching your message to the intended recipient, the likelihood of a favorable reception is greatly increased.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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