Engaging the Next Generation Donor

By Gretchen E. Buhlig and Mark Antonucci, EdD    //    Volume 27,  Number 4   //    July/August 2019

Millennials, who grew up amidst rapid change, are often disruptors within their industries. They think differently than have previous generations, are motivated differently, and they want to exert a global impact. Within the world of philanthropy they bring different perspectives than do “traditional” donors, and yet the way in which universities engage them is still primarily traditional.

At the Arizona State University (ASU) Foundation we embraced the “differences” that millennials bring and we took a calculated approach to recruiting them as future foundation board members and donors. We focused on engaging those millennial influencers and industry changers who have graduated from ASU since Michael Crow became ASU’s president in 2002. By establishing the Next Generation Council we gave them a seat at the table so to speak right next to the ASU Foundation Board of Directors. The purpose of the council, which is composed of eight alumni, is to develop future foundation board members and philanthropists by incorporating their perspectives into foundation board decisions. They are being engaged equally as if they were voting directors. They attend board meetings, participate in events, and will be fully involved in the board’s retreat this summer. They will see everything the board will see, and there will be no separate components of the planning/design conversations we are having. While they do not vote, they are not being seen or treated as a subcommittee or task force but as full partners.

ASU’s charter emphasizes being “measured not by whom it excludes, but rather by whom it includes and how
they succeed.” We believe that to adopt this metric the board must be inclusive of input and direction from all generations and interests—even if they offer contrary points of view. In fact, it’s precisely because they offer contrary points of view that we want to engage them.

The council members we selected built their professional successes on the bedrock of ASU resources and experiences, but most of them were not engaged with ASU. That changed dramatically after they were asked to join the council. We found that ultimately this opportunity inspired council members to reengage with their alma mater. In fact, every member has become a donor since joining. In asking for their time and talent, we found the treasure came without a formal solicitation. That powerfully demonstrates how millennials will contribute with an “all-in” approach if they believe they are being asked to help make an impact.

ASU’s belief in integrating generations into the governing and philanthropic process is the reason why this column is written by two people. Antonucci, a millennial, developed the idea for the council and is a member. Buhlig is a traditional philanthropic professional who is eager to help shepherd future leaders.

Under President Crow ASU has positioned itself as a “new American university”—simultaneously pursuing excellence, broad access to quality education, and meaningful social impact. ASU’s New American University Scholar program seeks to help a greater number of qualified students graduate, the university providing not only monetary assistance but also an environment focusing on knowledge, learning and research, and resources that can be applied to helping solve society’s most pressing challenges. So if one of the university’s goals is to produce innovators and entrepreneurs who can successfully tackle these challenges then we must involve everyone in this effort.

We have learned some important lessons as we have sought to incorporate new blood and fresh thinking into our work—lessons from which we hope other institutions can benefit. And we are excited about what the future holds. As we are learning, millennials do think differently, and they do have a desire to have an impact. And if that’s disruptive, that’s a good thing.

Gretchen E. Buhlig is the chief executive officer of the Arizona State University Foundation.
Mark Antonucci, EdD, is the chief of staff of the Arizona State University Foundation.