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Understanding Gen Z: Insights for Nonprofits

As the latest cohort to start entering adulthood, Generation Z has been under the spotlight as organizations seek to engage with this next group of donors in the hope of “future-proofing” themselves. For nonprofits, understanding Gen Z will be crucial to securing support from the most diverse generation yet.

While the precise cut-off years for Gen Z vary from source to source, the term generally refers to those born between the late 90s or early 2000s and the early 2010s. Most often raised by Gen X parents, these teens and young adults are coming into the workforce and quickly gaining financial independence.

Understanding Gen Z

Why are Gen Z the way that they are? What developments make them similar and/or distinct from the generations that came before? What are the implications for nonprofits?

Gen Z: Continuing the trend

By definition, a generation is defined by the environment that they were born and grew up in. Major events and technological advancements that occur in each cohort’s formative years shape their values, behaviors, and lifestyles.

In this sense, many generational differences are predictable. They are the expected result of continuing trends that have occurred over decades. It’s no surprise that each generation of young adults is savvier in using the latest technology compared with their predecessors.

In the United States, Gen Z is part of a broader demographic trend toward greater diversity, higher levels of education, and a more pervasive use of technology.

Gen Z is the most diverse generation in American history.

The demographic configuration of the United States is increasingly diverse. With Gen Z, the generational percentage that is non-white is 48%, which is effectively half of the population. They are a snapshot of our nation’s demographic future. By comparison, 39% of Millennials, 30% of Gen Xers, and 18% of Baby Boomers are minorities.

With the continued rise of acceptance of the LGBTQ community in the United States, Gen Z also has more adults identifying as LGBT than any previous generations. According to Gallup, 15.9% of Gen Z adults self-identify as LGBT, which is nearly eight times greater than the 2% of Baby Boomers who identify as such. As a result, Gen Z is inherently more accepting of different identities than older generations.

Gen Z is on track to be the best-educated generation in American history.

According to the Pew Research Center, more Gen Zers are pursuing college than previous generations when they were the same age. This is indicative of the growing importance placed on college education over the decades, as well as inflation in the educational requirements for jobs that once made no such demand, and a decline in foreign-born Americans who tend to have lower percentages attending college in the first generation.

It is worth noting, however, that Gen Z’s sentiments toward the value of college are not overwhelmingly positive. Seeing their Millennial elders struggle with student debt and underemployment, Gen Z has grown skeptical of the true “ROI” of a formal college education. How this generation deals with this issue ranges from calling for free college tuition to moving toward new forms of education.

Gen Zers are the inheritors of the 24/7 digital life.

Every generation is shaped by the new technology it grows up with, and it’s certainly no different for Gen Z.

They grew up with ubiquitous access to the internet, smartphones as a nearly universal personal accessory, and endless streams of content on social media—all of it deeply intertwined with lifestyle, identity, and popular culture. While most Millennials lived through the transition into the above reality, Generation Z was born into it. This is a group of individuals that grew up online, constantly filtering through infinite amounts of information and often curating content for their own nascent personal brands.

Understanding a Gen Z world and how nonprofits fit into it

Of course, in addition to the above trends, there are developments unique to being young that have shaped this generation. Analyzing the world as they know it will be helpful in understanding Gen Z and determining the best ways for nonprofits to engage with them.

A global connection

Because of their diverse makeup, Gen Zers are comparably more used to different cultures and perspectives than their older predecessors. This is amplified by a global connection enabled by the internet.

While previous generations were able to observe global events, Gen Z is directly interacting with people around the world through social media, gaming platforms, and other online communities. For this generation, borders are blurring as they see themselves as citizens of the world who have more in common with their global peers than older adults in their own country.

Gen Z is more than willing to support your nonprofit, but they need to know about it.

For Gen Z, world news has come to them instantaneously and, often, informally. These are individuals who learn about global issues from social media and word-of-mouth rather than news reports. But while Gen Z is more skilled at identifying misinformation than older generations, their short attention spans mean they don’t always take the time to parse what is credible from what isn’t.

For better or for worse, this informal influx of global news (often coming from sources who are emotionally invested in the subject matter) has shaped Gen Z’s attitude toward social responsibility. They are hyperaware of the injustices and crises occurring around them and are determined to make a real difference.

Takeaway: This generation doesn’t need to be convinced to support social causes. Gen Z is more than willing to support your organization, but they need to know about it. Break through the noise of news by boosting brand awareness and sharing relevant information. Remember that even if some don’t have the financial means to donate, Gen Zers are motivated to support in other ways as long as they connect strongly with your efforts and you back up your brand promise operationally.

The post 9/11 world: The Great Recession, climate change, and more

While some may have been toddlers when 9/11 happened, most of Gen Z has never known a world where terrorism wasn’t a national concern. Much of their childhood was spent during the Great Recession and, growing up, news of mass shootings, social injustices, and climate change-related natural disasters have shaped their view of the world.

Authenticity, action, and accountability are big for Gen Z.

In contrast to the more optimistic generations before them, Gen Z is practical, cautious, and realistic. They care about making a change but in a results-driven rather than idealistic manner. Well-informed and educated, they have a low tolerance for “slick talk and excuses” or flashy gimmicks. They want transparency, they want action, and they want results.

Takeaway: Authenticity, action, and accountability are big for this generation. Understanding Gen Z priorities, nonprofits need to be transparent with their efforts and clearly present their impact. Don’t leave room for people to be suspicious of your intentions and actions. This generation will not hesitate to tap into their online resources to vocalize their concerns.

Balancing online with offline

As digital natives, Gen Z is most prominently present online. The digital world is where they connect and engage with others, where they are entertained, and where they get their information.

Gen Zers are comfortable online, but they will also take steps to curate their own personalized world, whether it’s training the algorithm to recommend relevant content or joining online communities through group chats or servers.

To bypass the mass of content and short attention spans, communications need to be relevant, personalized, and platform-appropriate for Gen Z.

Gen Z’s reliance on technology does not equate, however, to a rejection of offline experiences. They still crave physical connections, with 83% having a newfound appreciation for in-person interactions as a result of the pandemic. Recognizing the importance of “digital detoxing,” Gen Z is working to balance their online and offline lifestyles.

Takeaway: A digital-first strategy will be the best way to reach Gen Z. To bypass the mass of content and their short attention span, communications need to be relevant, personalized, and platform-appropriate. But don’t stop there. Find ways to bring that connection beyond online engagement and encourage Gen Z to be offline supporters as well.

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Photo by Linpaul Rodney

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