How much initiative is a non-profit taking to connect with Generation Z? The answer to this question could hint at the organization’s potential for long-term growth and success.
Members of Generation Z – defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1997 and 2012 – are called “digital natives” because they have never known life without the internet. These young people are known for dominating the social media app TikTok with enthusiastic dancing and for challenging workplace norms with rebellious behaviours such as “quiet quitting.” As a result of changing immigration patterns in North America, they’re the most racially and ethnically diverse generation – and the most educated. This has resulted in a liberal set of attitudes for many Gen Zers and an openness to new social trends. In fact, roughly six in 10 Gen Zers believe that more racial and ethnic diversity is a good thing for society. They are also the generation most likely to believe the government should do more to solve societal problems.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, beyond the headlines about their youthful antics, Gen Zers are using their voracious appetite for information to seek out and engage with a wide range of charitable causes.
The search for information and impact
Just take a look at Ian Korovinsky and Ellen Tam, who are both members of the Youth Advisory Council for University of Waterloo’s Youth & Innovation Project. Founded by Amelia Clarke and Ilona Dougherty, who built national youth-led organizations in their early 20s, the Youth & Innovation Project aims to engage young people in important dialogue about the social and political challenges facing our world. Both grade 12 students, Korovinsky and Tam come from different backgrounds – he was raised in Ontario, while she immigrated from Hong Kong – but share a desire to learn about the world and create positive social change.
One of the first factors that draws us in is primarily the amount of information available.Ian Korovinsky, Opportunify
Korovinsky’s list of volunteer roles includes being president of the non-profit Opportunify, where he works to connect Canadian students and impactful organizations through suitable volunteer opportunities posted on its website. He believes that having information easily available online is an effective way to reach and engage Gen Z and has the following advice for charities attempting to do so: “One of the first factors that draws us in is primarily the amount of information available. So, for example, if an organization or a charity has, like, a website or social media page somewhere, we can go and see everything that’s happening.”
The second factor, he says, is impact. “When we’re able to see that, hey, they’re progressing with their goals, and they’re working towards something great, that usually appeals to us as well.” The impact needs to be recent, Korovinsky says, or it could deter potential Gen Z donors and volunteers. “We’d like to see things that are very current – that are happening at the moment.”
Korovinsky’s perspectives align with much of the research on Gen Z so far.
In 2022, global communications firm Edelman completed research that showed Gen Z has a penchant for finding and sharing information online. “What we’re seeing with Gen Z is they’re not paralyzed by fear. They truly believe that if they get involved in a cause, they can help,” says Jennifer Meehan, executive vice-president of brand practice at Edelman Canada. “One of the things we talk about is Gen Z redefining the structure of influence. They are a digital generation, even more so than our millennial friends, and 58% of them in Canada are creating content, and sharing it online weekly.”
What we’re seeing with Gen Z is they’re not paralyzed by fear. They truly believe that if they get involved in a cause, they can help.Jennifer Meehan, Edelman Canada
They’re particularly eager to share information about causes they believe the masses don’t know enough about. “Also, 51% of Canadians are saying where and how they get their news has changed or been influenced by Gen Z,” says Meehan. “A lot of them may have teenagers in their house or are grandparents.”
A willingness to engage with causes
Another key generalization is Gen Z’s willingness to engage with causes dedicated to social justice issues. Tam is the founder of a social justice club called PEGASI, which aims to increase awareness of tragedies that aren’t receiving coverage from the mainstream Western media. An aspiring human rights lawyer, Tam is focused on women’s empowerment issues and volunteers for three organizations – Girl Up Alberta, Thrive Like a Girl, and Girl to Girl – that endeavour to build girls’ self-esteem.
Nicola Lacetera, a professor and researcher at the University of Toronto, examines altruistic behaviour and charitable giving in Canada. Echoing the Pew Research Center and Edelman, he says Gen Zers have demonstrated a desire to support civil rights. “The LGBTQIA+ community is definitely attracting more attention, and issues around race, ethnicity, and identity,” he says. “Think about Black Lives Matter.”
Lacetera notes that the causes Gen Z shows interest in are reflective of the times, which is similar to the behaviour of previous generations. “For Gen X, it was a lot about helping, for example, people in developing countries, fighting hunger. You might remember concerts such as Live Aid,” he says. “But now there is much more variation, even within the [Global] North, about the different causes. There is a sense that there are other forms of marginality that deserve some attention, and some support, also in the form of financial help.”
I tend to do things that are online rather than physical, because it’s more accessible and easier adjusted to my schedule.Ellen Tam, PEGASI
Tam says there are three things she looks for before committing to an organization. The first is whether it aligns with her values. “For example, girl empowerment groups, which obviously I would agree with, and I really like woman empowerment and feminism,” she says. “The second thing I look to when I’m applying is whether or not the things they need volunteers for are things I’m capable of doing. I tend to do things that are online rather than physical, because it’s more accessible and easier adjusted to my schedule. The third thing is whether the people who are leading the organization are younger or older.”
I feel like with newer organizations, I tend to get bigger roles than [with] the ones that are already really large.Ellen Tam
Tam has found that it’s easier to communicate with younger leaders and they’re more flexible. She says the age of the organization has also influenced the types of opportunities she’s been offered. “I feel like with newer organizations, I tend to get bigger roles than [with] the ones that are already really large,” she says. “And I feel like more people apply to them, and if they’re an adult, they’ll probably get more responsibilities.”
Korovinsky and Tam say the Youth & Innovation Project is effectively engaging young people. “They try their best to empower you,” says Tam. “They ask for our opinion on things and make sure we get larger roles. We’re not just being told what to do by adults.”
Striving to engage Gen Z
Ilona Dougherty, the Youth & Innovation Project’s managing director, devotes much of her time to understanding what motivates young people.
She outlines some questions she’d ask a charity striving to involve Gen Z, including whether their board has young members, the demographics of their staff, and if they have a robust youth internship or co-op program where young people feel valued and engaged.
Young people are not going to stick around if they feel like they’re not being listened to, or they’re not going to be able to make an impact.Ilona Dougherty, Youth & Innovation Project
“The right organizations that know how to meaningfully engage young people in their governance, in their decision-making, are going to be the ones who then know how to reach out to young donors, who then can engage young volunteers, because they know how to value young people and really listen to young people,” she says. “They’re not going to stick around if they feel like they’re not being listened to, or they’re not going to be able to make an impact.”
Seeing someone we know supporting a cause … it’s almost always a factor that makes us want to learn more about it.Ian Korovinsky
For organizations struggling with how to begin, Korovinsky says that one way to connect with young people and spur them into action is through social media. Instagram, he says, is a useful tool. “Instagram is a more professional platform, and a lot of established charities already have accounts on it,” he says. “I’d say that seeing someone we know supporting a cause … it’s almost always a factor that makes us want to learn more about it.”
In a 2022 report by Shopify, Instagram is listed as the most popular app for influencer marketing, followed by TikTok. The report shows that 386.6 million, or 43.7%, of TikTok users are between the ages of 18 and 24, which makes Gen Z the largest age group on the platform.
Tam says organizations can go a step further on social media by using terms popular with Gen Z or partnering with an influencer who has a significant Gen Z following. Recently, Tam herself became engaged with a cause after one of her favourite actresses posted information about it.
The future of philanthropy
Ultimately, whatever approach an organization decides to take, it is most important to simply take a step forward to engage Gen Z, especially as more of them move closer to adulthood. These young people will be the next generation of philanthropic leaders. And, as Korovinsky and Tam show, there are Gen Zers already spearheading charitable efforts.
“The innovation that young people are particularly good at coming up with is really bold new ideas that challenge the way we do things,” says Dougherty.
She encourages those in the non-profit sector to also interact with young people to learn about them as individuals. “You don’t want to paint everyone with the same brush,” she says. “So, different young people are going to be attracted to different issues, because of their life experience.”