What is the optimal makeup of a nonprofit board, or of a pipeline of major donors? For boards, ideally, it’s people who have the time and other resources required to do the job right, in a way that they find satisfying and rewarding. With respect to major donors, fundraising program resources are ideally focused on those with the passion and ability to give at a high level, who are also at a point in their lives where gift-making and the charitable disposition of assets are an integral part of financial planning, not the exception.

If you’re thinking that older individuals fit this mold better than younger folks, you’d be right.

In fact, age is one type of diversity that, for many organizations, can help strengthen the capacity of boards to provide leadership, skills, and perspective gained from life experience. As for donors, older people are often making decisions about the largest gifts of their lifetimes, and it’s important for nonprofits to be part of that conversation.

Yet many organizations spend too much time and effort chasing potential board members who do not yet have the time and resources to serve in effective and satisfying ways – i.e., younger folks in their 30s and 40s. At the same time, they often overlook individuals who have reached the stage in life where they are ready and eager to serve. Likewise, as organizations build a pipeline of major gift donors—with a small number of gifts often accounting for a large percentage of dollars—they can waste significant time chasing people who are not ready to turn their attention to major-gift philanthropy while ignoring individuals who are.

In short, age matters. And here, I am talking about people older than 65 – people in their 70s, 80s, perhaps even into their 90s and beyond.

40-Somethings Are Not the Ideal Cohort for Boards

Most nonprofit board members in the United States are over the age of 50. Some nonprofit leaders and consultants decry this fact. But they completely fail to understand that most people under the age of 50 have too many demands on their time and financial resources to serve on boards in a way they will find rewarding and the organizations will find beneficial.

First, I would argue that it’s neither new nor unhealthy, that nonprofit boards are comprised primarily of individuals over the age of 50. I have worked with thousands of board members throughout my career in the nonprofit sector and can say from experience that those under 60 often struggle to balance board responsibilities with family and career.

Yes, 40-somethings (the presumed ideal, missing board cohort) can bring a lot to the table, but most are in the midst of building their careers and businesses. If they have children, they are running from baseball games to dance lessons to birthday parties. In 60% of married households with children, both spouses work full-time. The situation is even more hectic and time-constrained for single parents with children.

Most board members I know want to participate fully. That means showing up for every meeting, not two out of four meetings each year—missing one for a school play and one for a business trip. They want to participate in committees, not decline those opportunities because they are too busy. Board members should also have the financial capacity to meet board expectations for giving and potentially make pacesetting gifts for important campaigns.

These people know that boards provide leadership—in passion, expertise, giving, and influence—and they want to have time and financial resources to play their part. And most 40-somethings just don’t have the bandwidth to do it justice, for themselves or the organization.

70- and 80-Somethings Have a Greater Capacity for Giving

That latter idea – capacity for leadership in giving – is an apt segue to the key second issue: major gifts. Forty-somethings have too many demands on their financial resources to give at a level that’s expected of “major” donors.

But every fundraiser has seen it and experienced it: a senior administrator or board member reads about a large gift from a 28-year-old tech gazillionaire and then declares that the development department needs to attract more major donors in their 30s and 40s. It’s a well-intentioned suggestion (sometimes a demand) but distracts from the important work of cultivating and stewarding donors with the greatest capacity and likelihood of giving.

Major gift donors in their 30s and 40s do exist, but they are the exception. Most major gifts are made by individuals who are moving past the wealth-building period of their lives: about 60% of the largest gifts made in the United States each year are from individuals and couples over the age of 70; over 40% are made by individuals and couples over 80.

There is nothing mysterious about this, nor does focusing on these donors demonstrate any weakness in fundraising staff or programs. These generous individuals have moved past the expenses of building businesses and raising children, and they are better aware of how much money they are likely to have and need for the rest of their lives. They are ready to deploy the rest in support of nonprofit organizations whose missions resonate with them.

40-somethings are not at that stage of life. Rather, they are still building a life, paying a mortgage, trying to fund college for their children, and saving for a comfortable retirement. They may be in a position to make a large gift, but the percentage of them prepared to do so is much smaller, compared to those who are older and more confident in their long-term financial positions.

It is also true that many of the largest gifts made in this country are made through bequests. Well-intentioned nonprofit leaders often jump to the conclusion that getting into the will of 40-somethings should be a priority. While there is nothing wrong with encouraging a 40-something to include an organization in their will, nonprofit leaders should recognize that the 40-something individual will change that will when their first child is born, and again when their first grandchild is born, and again when their spouse dies, and again when they recognize they are nearing death themselves.

The only will that truly matters is the last one. Yet most organizations spend more time getting into the first will than engaging and otherwise stewarding relationships with 85-year-olds, who are in the process of making their final wills.

In fact, some of those 85-year-olds or their spouses were forced to retire from the board 15 years earlier. Many haven’t been able to travel to alumni reunions or attend an evening concert or event in years. Some have lost spouses and don’t want to attend events alone. They have fallen off the radar, at the exact time they are making decisions about the final disposition of the wealth they have accumulated over a lifetime.

There Are Better Ways to Engage 40-Somethings

While some 40-somethings with an interest in an organization’s mission will be in a position to serve on a board or give at a major donor level, most are not. So, instead of trying to fit a 40-something into the box of “board member” or “major donor,” creative advancement professionals and other nonprofit leaders engage them in other ways. Every organization, with every imaginable mission, can come up with at least one way to be relevant and engage those folks at a level that’s more suited to their time and financial constraints.

What that looks like will depend on the organization’s mission. Maybe it’s short-term mentoring of a student who wants to work in the same industry, participating on a short-term task force that allows them to offer particular expertise, participating in a bike-a-thon that allows them to get exercise while supporting a cause that’s important to a family member or friend, or taking time on a Saturday afternoon with one of their children to deliver meals to individuals who are home-bound.

An empathetic approach to engaging 40-somethings will consider how an organization can be relevant to their lives now. For example, rather than subscribing to a concert series, maybe a music nonprofit can offer a Saturday afternoon children’s program, where parents can enjoy the music and not worry about their child disrupting audience members seated nearby. “Instrument petting zoos” provide another creative example, where orchestra members or conservatory students demonstrate an instrument to parents and children and let children try it for themselves. That’s a way to bring music into people’s lives in a way that’s relevant now.

By establishing those bonds, the 40-something may become a regular annual fund donor or attend a fundraising event. These early gifts, rooted in a sense of mutual benefit – rather than merely seen as a financial benefit flowing from donor to organization – plant a seed for philanthropic partnership—the best platform for major giving later in life. And that focus on relevance and mutual benefit applies equally well to 30-somethings and 20-somethings and should be factored into all fundraising and volunteer recruitment activity for donors of all ages.

The Term “Age-Appropriate” Applies to Adults Too

In board recruitment and donor cultivation, a big dose of empathy often leads to the realization that age matters in board service and major giving: both happen when an individual or family has the time and the financial confidence to make a nonprofit organization a priority in their lives.

If the goal is to have active board members, with the time, experience, and financial resources to serve as advisors, pacesetting donors, and ambassadors, it makes no sense to prioritize recruitment of 40-somethings over 70 or even 80- or 90-somethings. My father-in-law is 103, and he’s still writing books. Any organization that thinks he probably had nothing more to contribute as a board member after he reached the age of 70 would be sorely mistaken. Yet nonprofit boards routinely force board members to retire from board service at 70.

Some 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings will be able to make a meaningful contribution in service or financial giving, but most won’t get there until they are in their 50s, 60s, or even much later. Nonprofit leaders need to focus their engagement efforts in ways that are appropriate to an individual’s capacity and resources, which are often tied to their age and stage of life. To be successful, these efforts in some measure need to be “age-appropriate.”

Ultimately, nonprofits need to design engagement strategies that pay attention to age. Board service and major gift cultivation are only two of many ways to cultivate strong and lasting commitment. For the most part, 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings will more productively be engaged in other ways. And as for the use of precious board seats and major gift cultivation resources—in the words of my late and dear friend Robert Sharpe—”don’t leave the playing field at the end of the third quarter.” People in their 70s and beyond may just be getting started with their greatest philanthropic contributions.

You can also find this article on Ron Schiller’s LinkedIn, where he regularly posts about other important insights and topics, as well as updates from the ALG team and community.

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