Baby boomers are about to give $8 trillion to charity, but they won't just write a check
All Hands Volunteers
David Campbell was on the cusp of retirement at age 63 after a successful career in the technology sector when a tidal wave altered his path.
Moved by the profound humanitarian need in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Campbell flew across the world to try using the Internet to organize volunteers in a natural disaster.
He created a project base at a hotel that became a hub for "spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers" and found that his management experience came in handy when it came to getting money and volunteers to the places they were needed most.
Campbell intended to stay in Thailand for 10 days but ended up staying for a month. Eleven years later, that first project has evolved into All Hands Volunteers, a nonprofit that responds to natural disasters and works on rebuilding projects around the world.
“I never really envisioned retirement, but it hasn’t been anything like what I would have envisioned if I had,” Campbell said.
Campbell and the rest of the baby boomer cohort are entering retirement, but they’re not done leaving their mark. Boomers are set to give $8 trillion to charity over the next two decades in the form of money and volunteer hours, according to a Merrill Lynch study published in October. Giving by retirees will account for half of all giving by 2025, said Merrill Lynch financial adviser Ralph Byer.
Boomers are famous for wanting to do things their own way and change the world, and charitable giving will be the next chapter in their impact. Experts don't know exactly how this generation will shape the philanthropic landscape, but they do know that compared with previous generations, boomers are more values-driven and want to be more personally involved in the causes they care about. They are also more hesitant about trusting nonprofits and want to make sure they will have an impact, according to a report from Blackbaud, a nonprofit services firm.
Many are also still recovering from the recession and have adult children living at home yet to launch, all of which affect how they give.
“For the foreseeable future, boomers will be where the bulk of giving is,” said Mark Rovner, principal at Sea Change Strategies and author of the Blackbaud report. Fundraisers who understand boomers and can speak to their values will have an advantage.
“Baby boomers are a Peter Pan generation. They’re still hiking and biking and playing. The idea that we’re growing old hasn’t sunk in yet, and we’re redefining aging,” Rovner said.
Boomers aren’t inherently more generous than other generations, but they are at the stage of life where they have the money and the time to donate, said Una Osili, Director of Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
The Merrill Lynch study found that 80 percent of Americans age 65 and older say they give money or goods to charity. And they're increasingly web-savvy givers: 42 percent of boomers said they gave online in 2013, making them just as likely to donate online as to respond to direct mail, according to Blackbaud.
When it comes to favorite causes, boomers give to religious organizations more frequently than younger generations, but less often than older generations. Religious groups are traditionally the top recipients of charitable gifts in the U.S., but giving to them appears to be declining as fewer Americans affiliate with a particular religion, Osili said.
But faith still has an impact. “People’s motivations for giving may also be informed by their faith, even if they are giving to other causes,” Osili said. “It is an open question how (the trend) will affect religious charities.”
Byer said the baby boomers he works with “give to charities that pull on their heartstrings. For example, a family with a child or grandchild who has a disability will often look for an organization that aligns with that disability when searching for an outlet for their giving.”
His clients also use giving to teach their children.
“One of my clients recently donated Thanksgiving turkeys to families at a battered women’s shelter. When someone driving a nice vehicle came to pick up one of the turkeys, his child didn’t understand how violence could occur to someone who drove a car like that,” Byer wrote in an email. The client took advantage of the opportunity to teach his son about domestic violence and why it was important to get involved.
Baby boomers are less peer-driven than younger generations, said Rovner. “Millennials make every decision on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest. Boomers are more values-driven and more sure of their own minds,” he said.
Yet for nonprofits working to fundraise among baby boomers, age may not be the most important thing.
“If I care about animals, it doesn’t matter if I’m 70 or 20,” Rovner said. “We are on the verge of new wisdom about thinking tribally and thinking in terms of values instead of age.”
Retirement as encore
Retired Navy captain and Vietnam veteran Ed Nicholson was being treated for prostate cancer in 2005 at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Arlington, Virginia, when he met young veterans struggling through rehab in the occupational therapy clinic. An avid fly fisherman, Nicholson became interested in how the motion of casting a reel could help with recovery from certain injuries and volunteered to take some of the patients fishing.
“It was a life-altering experience,” he said — for the young veterans and also for him.
Today, Nicholson runs Project Healing Waters, a nonprofit organization that organizes veterans and fishing clubs around the country to provide physical and social support for recovering veterans.
Nicholson and Campbell were both awarded the Purpose Prize, an award for people over 60 creating new approaches to social problems. Nicholson received $25,000 for the prize in 2013, while Campbell received $100,000 for the prize in 2014. The prize is awarded by Encore.org, a nonprofit that works to engage people in later life to benefit society, based on the premise that people today have an extra 20 or 30 “bonus years” of active, healthy life after retirement — what Encore.org calls “an unprecedented human resource windfall.”
In addition to highlighting people like Campbell and Nicholson, who have founded their own organizations, Encore.org also helps organize and tell the stories of everyday people who are leveraging skills from their careers into a “second act.”
Boomers are interested in engaging at higher levels than retirees of the past by applying skills from their careers to the causes they care about, Osili said.
“They are not interested in just writing a check,” she said. “For some nonprofits, this is a challenge, especially if in the past they were more focused on getting their dollars. Organizations have to understand what the needs are of the donors and find opportunities to engage them as volunteers, advisers, and so forth.”
Organizations that do this successfully benefit because they get engaged and committed donors who offer wisdom based on a life of experience, she said. The volunteers also benefit from deeper fulfillment.
“I’m a purposeful person,” Campbell said. “This work gives me a tremendous sense of purpose. I can apply my experience, my intelligence, my networks, my capital —everything I’ve got I can use.”
The mental and physical benefits of giving are well documented, yet some Boomers limit their donations because of worries about the trustworthiness of charities, feeling overwhelmed with giving options, or financial concerns, the Merrill Lynch report found.
“One of the biggest pitfalls that baby boomers sometimes fall victim to is not doing their research about a particular organization or charity before giving money,” Byer said. “It is imperative to ask the necessary questions and understand where your money is going, how it will be used in the organization and how it will make a real impact.”
“The United Way scandal of 20 years ago was a shaping event for boomers,” Rovner said. “They are still likely to worry about how much is being spent on programs vs. overhead.”
Rovner and Osili mentioned tools like Charity Navigator, an online rating system for vetting charities, along with others including Guidestar, where Osili said potential donors can view tax information, and the Better Business Bureau. Givewell.org provides information about charities working in international development.
The first step in finding a cause to support is to do some soul searching, Byer said. “Personal fulfillment is one of the core values we discuss with our clients. For example, they can give as much money as they want to hunger relief organizations, but if their heart lies with the Humane Society, they won’t be receiving the same personal satisfaction through their giving.”
Once clients have identified their passions, he encourages them to participate in events to learn more about organizations, meet the people running them and learn where their money would actually be going.
“Non-profit events also provide great opportunities to get out of the home and meet other people who have the same passion points,” he said. “Spending time with the organization will help them obtain that personal fulfillment factor they crave. When you feed someone that’s hungry and are actually there to see the impact your efforts bring — that’s what it’s all about.”
Byer also suggests thinking about ways to give back that don’t involve money.
“One of my clients has a therapy dog that she takes to hospitals and nursing homes to help reduce stress and anxiety among patients. This is her passion — it’s not dollars and cents, but it’s time and how she gives back in a meaningful way. It’s her legacy.”
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