What does it take to get young people to give money to environmental organizations? Here’s a case study: me. Earlier this year, I coughed up 80 hard-earned dollars to join TNC Next, the Nature Conservancy in Maine’s young-professional membership group. Aside from my National Geographic Society membership and the small sum I donated to a certain doomed political campaign in 2004, this is my first foray into organizational financial commitment.
TNC Next was created to encourage Maine’s young people — let’s be generous and say people under 40 — to participate in conservation activities and learn about the local environment. To that end, Nature Conservancy employees and the TNC Next steering committee plan events such as the Kennebec River boat cruise I went on last week, or the “work day” planned for late August at the Basin Preserve (a tidal inlet) in Phippsburg.
These events, which combine networking with nature, are opportunities both to share TNC organizational news and to spread a general conservation ethic. On the boat cruise, for instance, we boozed it up while learning a little bit about the Nature Conservancy’s land holdings along the Kennebec River and marveling at terns and seals. The trip was in keeping with the Nature Conservancy’s overall philosophy of demonstrating specific conservation achievements in Maine and across the US. (Learn more at nature.org.)
The factors that contributed to my joining TNC Next were: the cause itself (the environment, that is), TNC’s specific courting of young people, and the fact that a friend is involved with the organization and directly asked for my participation. If any one of those pieces hadn’t been in place, I’m not sure I would have shelled out the $80. In truth, the last factor was probably the most influential. Research shows that voters respond most positively to face-to-face discussions with neighbors or people they know (as opposed to random solicitations from unfamiliars); there’s no reason that the same theory wouldn’t hold true for philanthropy.
It’s not that $80 is such a humongous chunk of cash (although it is pretty sizable). I’ve spent that much on jeans, art, and a month’s worth of beer. But paying $80 for something I can’t hold in my hands — for an idea, really — is difficult.
That’s why I predict that the TNC events, especially the ones that involve getting our hands dirty, will be effective selling points. It may seem strange to pay $80 for the opportunity to maintain trails and construct water-bars that help control erosion, but hands-on activity makes me feel productive, helps me see where my money is going. It also moves the idea of philanthropy away from hoity-toity Bruce Wayne-esque parties (to which few of my friends can relate), and positions it in a realistic setting — mud and all.
This isn’t to say that TNC, or any organization, environmental or otherwise, has to turn us into dirty hippies in order to fill their coffers. I’m merely suggesting that those who benefit from philanthropy have to make the donation mean something. (Incidentally, I’m sure the people in charge of philanthropy at major non-profits know all this already. I’m mostly unpacking it for my own benefit and introspection.)
Still, trail-clearing or no, the real clincher for me was feeling some amount of social pressure to join. In other words, if you want me to give you money, just have someone who knows me ask for it.