Talking About ‘My Generation’ | Sharpe Group
Posted January 1st, 2010

Talking About ‘My Generation’

Some planned giving marketing efforts take a “one-size-fits-all” approach by exposing their entire constituency to the same message using the same medium. The goal instead should be to target the right people with the right messages using the most appropriate media at the right time in their lives.

For instance, planned giving programs with a large donor base and experienced staff often find it more economical and productive to target specific subsets of the larger group of potential donors through multiple communication channels. Personal visits, group meetings and events, telephone contact, direct mail, ads, articles, e-mail, Web sites, and other approaches all have an appropriate audience and role.

Generational clusters

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

Exploring older generations

Let’s consider some of the generations in more detail. One group, “the oldest old,” would include those persons age 100 and older. Those few persons who have survived to 100 are the last members of the “Depression Era” adults. Census reports estimate that these centenarians could number around 100,000 in 2010. It is not uncommon for members of this group to have memories of relatives who were born in the early 19th century and may have even fought in the Civil War. This generation’s life experiences have paralleled the explosion of technical innovations, from early flight to unmanned landings on Mars. Nevertheless, they are still more likely to relate to a pocketknife than a pocket calculator. While many organizations can claim a few donors who are among the survivors of this generation, for the most part they have completed their years as donors.

Following closely behind this group is what is known as the “World War II Generation.” The Great Depression and World War II were the primary formative events impacting their lives and the world in which they were children and young adults. The youngest members of this generation are now in their early eighties. Over the past several decades, this older group has been the source of most of the planned gifts actually received by America’s charities. Recent IRS studies indicate that more maturing gifts still come from people in this generation than from any other group. Note that an American Council on Gift Annuities (ACGA) study reported that nearly half of gift annuities are completed by persons over the age of 80. One program completing over $5 million per year from an average of 200 annuities found both the average and median age of new gift annuitants last year was 82.

The youngest of the older set

Members of the “Silent Generation” were born between the late 1920s and the final years of World War II. Those in this demographic subset were younger children during the Great Depression and their adolescence occurred during or in the years immediately following the Second World War. Many in this group grew up amid stories detailing the financial collapse that took place in the years before World War II—family farms and businesses lost to foreclosure, masses of people out of work, bank closings—and the sacrifices the war demanded. They may also have lost older siblings and neighbors, parents, or relatives in World War II. They then came of age during America’s ascension to superpower status in the 1950s.

Those born to this generation were originally dwarfed by the World War II and Boomer Generations. Today, they outnumber the Depression and World War II survivors combined and now compose the core prospective donors for many planned giving marketing efforts today. Members of the Silent Generation range in age from 65 to 80 with life expectancies of from ten to twenty years, and as a whole tend to be healthier and more active than older generations.

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, these lessons 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. It is also essential to subdivide the “senior” or “mature” market into the distinct cohort groups that comprise the older population.

Sharpe senior strategy

For example, most of the elderly “Depression Era” adults are not prospects for new current or deferred gifts. Planned giving officers should instead devote their time to stewarding any known bequest expectancies in the centenarian category. Suitable contact may include an occasional personal visit or written correspondence. It may also be appropriate to communicate with these donors through advisors, family, and other caregivers. Keep in mind that the 100+ age range will be one of the fastest growing segments in coming years and not one to be ignored.

Serving the oldest seniors

The youngest members of the World War II Generation are now in their eighties with the oldest approaching the century mark. This generation was the first to travel broadly and thus is likely to have a wider range of acquaintances and experiences than their predecessors. They still enjoy receiving mail, and print is thus still an effective medium for most in this group. In the near term, this generation will continue to be a primary source of gift annuities and the bulk of bequests received will come from them. Often, estate plans are revised and updated after the loss of a spouse or the diagnosis of a serious illness by persons in this age cohort. Because of the sensitivity of such subjects, planned giving marketing should be service oriented and, if in doubt, understated.

Silence is golden

The Silent Generation is primarily comprised of those age 65 to 80. This group is critical to bridging the gap between the World War II Generation and the Boomers. The older members of this generation may have much in common with their siblings in the World War II Generation. The younger members of the Silent Generation may have more in common with the Boomers. In fact, birth rates actually began a slow rise in the mid-1930s, culminating with the Baby Boom in the late 1940s. From a marketing and communications perspective, it may be most effective to include older Silents with communication channels previously targeted to the World War II Generation and use the younger Silent members age 65 to 70 as a “shift point” for messages and media aimed at older Boomers.


The goal when designing communications should be to make references to which your constituents of various ages can more easily relate. This also includes typefaces, colors, and design formats that are more familiar and accepted by relatively older and younger groups. Acknowledging generational cohort experiences and preferences 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 continue to grow in importance. For the foreseeable future, many traditional older planned giving prospects will continue to respond best to print, telephone, and personal contact. After all, these were generations that sent and received handwritten letters for most of their lives, communicated mostly in person and via telephone, television, and radio, and continue to prefer communication through these media.

E-mail, social media, and other media that have gained broad acceptance in recent years should be reserved for the most part for younger audiences.

In times of more limited resources, consider generation-based marketing as a valuable concept to assist you in reaching the right people at the 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.

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights 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 Sharpe Insights 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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