How to Engage Young Generations in the Age of COVID-19

6 min
Youths smiling at the camera as you engage young generations
Stephanie Schechter

During these times, when every day is filled with uncertainty, nonprofits must reevaluate their strategies to engage with all segments of their audience. This is especially relevant for nonprofits who want to engage young generations, like Generation Z (Gen Z).

Also known as “philanthroteens,” they’re thoughtful, political, and ready to take on the world. In fact, 32% of the next generation of donors report giving their own money to charitable causes and 26% of 16 to 19-year-olds volunteer on a regular basis. On top of that, 40% of Gen Z-ers would stop supporting a brand whose values or behavior doesn’t align with their beliefs.

They’re also the most media-savvy generation of all time. Because of this, they are astutely aware of current events and socio-political climates, and want to get involved with causes they care about. When dealing with a generation so interested in taking action, it’s critical to use the right tactics to engage them to take action with, and on behalf of, your nonprofit.

The COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have led people of all ages to spend more time consuming media, but each is doing so through different platforms. Generation Z, specifically, relies heavily on social media for news, entertainment, and community. In fact, according to DoSomething Strategic’s weekly surveys of Gen Z’s thoughts and actions regarding the pandemic, 69% of Gen Z-ers have attended or participated in a virtual event.

Keep reading to learn how social media trends, brand partnerships, and staying true to your organization’s mission can keep Gen Z engaged with your cause during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll break down these three tactics to help you engage young generations and explain how you can set them up to be lifelong supporters of your organization.

Use Social Media to Reach Young Audiences

Spending extra time at home has led members of Generation Z to increase social media usage by 80%. Social media is not only a prominent news source for young people, but also offers an outlet for creativity and humor during such a confusing time. Gen Z-ers turn to social media outlets to connect with friends and like-minded individuals, as well as brands they can identify with. 

However, the amount of information reaching young audiences on social media can be overwhelming. In order to stand out from the endless sea of posts, make sure you’re sharing thought-provoking and engaging content. 

Not every post needs to be a direct appeal—now is a great time to build positive relationships with young supporters who can donate and participate more in the future. So, consider posting brand awareness and thought leadership content that opens the door for the relationship to begin. 

The important part is that you make it relevant to the interests and engagement preferences of Gen Z. Video is one tried and true key method to successfully engage Gen Z: 89% of Gen Z uses YouTube, 74% use Instagram, and 68% use Snapchat on a weekly basis.

Let’s say, for example, you run an animal adoption nonprofit. You can play to this engagement preference by hosting a live stream event of dogs playing together on YouTube, all of which are up for adoption. In parallel, run a live Q&A with your program director in charge of finding them a loving home. 

Throughout it all, remember to make direct asks to donate and underscore the impact a gift of any size will make to improve the lives of these animals. This way you’re not excluding Gen Z, who may not have as much money as other generations, while offering an easy access point for them to become familiar with your mission in a way they’re accustomed to.

Some other ideas might be hosting interactive giveaways, offering virtual volunteer opportunities, or incentivizing Gen Z to participate in a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign. Incentives could include physical rewards, online shout-outs, or invitations to exclusive virtual events. Additionally, adhere to social media best practices by including photos, videos where applicable, and make use of targeted hashtags. 

For more in depth social media tips: 

Gen Z also likes to communicate directly with brands, so be sure to have a plan for social media community management in place. Do your best to reply to comments and direct messages so your supporters feel valued and appreciated. By increasing direct contact to engage young generations and keeping a close eye on messages, you can build your community while ensuring comments are moderated and your online reputation is upheld.

Partner With Trusted For-Profit Brands to Match Donations

More than previous generations, members of Generation Z prefer to shop with, and support, companies who stand for something. Gen Z-friendly brands can offer more than just a product—they create a community that gives teens and young adults a sense of belonging, as well as a space to express themselves and support causes they believe in.

When you coordinate corporate matching gift campaigns, you have an opportunity to partner with for-profit companies to accomplish a shared goal. That, in turn, can establish your organization as a central member of the community surrounding the for-profit brand, while also drawing Gen Z supporters to your own brand.

Here are some examples of collaborative campaigns between Gen Z-popular brands and nonprofits:

  • Popsockets has designed two special grips, and 100% of their proceeds will go to Doctors Without Borders and Feeding America. 
  • Jewelry brand Kendra Scott teamed up with Feeding America to donate $50,000 to food banks, plus 50% of all proceeds from one of their bracelets. 
  • TikTok is donating millions of dollars to a variety of health, education, and food nonprofits, and will be matching community donations to funds such as MusiCares and After-School All-Stars. 

If you’ve already got an established corporate partner, consider setting a meeting to discuss creative ways to host a joint campaign or effort that engages Gen Z. If you don’t have a for-profit partner yet, you can start the process by:

  • Identifying potential partners with shared values and vision
  • Connecting by phone, email, or even social media direct messages
  • Scheduling an official time to meet

Free Download: The Nonprofit’s Guide to Pitching Corporate Sponsors

Maintain Brand Authenticity  

Above all else, your authentic commitment to your cause speaks volumes to young supporters. Gen Z-ers have the ability and desire to fact-check the information the media feeds them, and they’re also skeptical of brand messaging

Additionally, many for-profit companies are pulling back on advertising due to criticism and accusations of insensitivity around COVID-19. Thus, it’s imperative for nonprofits to serve as an example and keep messaging to Gen Z authentic. 

Ensure that you’re not taking advantage of an event like the COVID-19 pandemic, as that could come off as disingenuous, pushy, and end up tarnishing your reputation. Instead, get creative with how your own mission, whether it’s directly related to COVID-19 or not, can fit into the global narrative and contribute value to the community. 

For example, we’ve seen nonprofits that aren’t directly affiliated with healthcare or medical fields find ways to contribute to the conversation. Dog adoption organization Wags and Walks writes blog posts and shares on social media ways to spend quality time with our dogs while stay-at-home orders are in effect. They stay true to their brand by suggesting activities you can do with your dog and offering advice on how to make the most of this extra time we’re spending with our pets. 

Dress for Success’ goal is always to help women in need, but they acknowledge that there will be a large increase in the amount of women of all ages struggling with financial independence due to the rising unemployment rates around the globe. In order to assist with this while halting in-person events, they are offering virtual programming and bringing their workshops and meetings online, to help women get back on their feet during such trying times. 

When engaging with a generation that cares so much about causes they believe in, during a time when so many organizations are sending messages, brand authenticity has never been more important. Keep your content true to your brand and your cause to ensure that you secure and maintain the trust of young supporters. 

The Nonprofit Supporters of the Future 

Whether you’re mobilizing coronavirus relief efforts or sustaining day-to-day operations at your nonprofit, it can be challenging to engage young generations, and retain their support.  However, if you’re able to invest time and resources into a Gen Z outreach strategy, it can help drive more revenue and lay the foundation for a lasting relationship with new donors. 

Gen Z already has a reputation for being philanthropic, and they actively report wanting to support organizations that make a difference. These digitally-savvy individuals are looking for ways to make an impact on the world while stuck at home, and you can get them off the bench and into the game.


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