Almost 25 years ago, David B. Schwartz, an attorney for The Walt Disney Co. now living in Los Angeles, graduated from Miami’s New World School of the Arts, the prestigious downtown performing arts school.
Over the years, the school had groomed a steady stream of talent, including more dancers in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater than any other conservatory in the nation; musicians performing at Lincoln Center and actors on Broadway; artists with works in museum collections; and Schwartz’s own buddy, Randall Emmett, a Hollywood producer behind a slew of hits, including the recent Denzel Washington-Mark Wahlberg cop caper, 2 Guns.
And yet over lunch one day, Schwartz and Emmett found themselves complaining about how much trouble they had tracking down fellow Fighting Pigeons. It turns out the cash-poor public school has no alumni organization.
So the pair did what came naturally to them, and so many other Gen Xers: they got together with friends and started a foundation.
And therein lies the complex nature of harnessing young volunteers and donors in the competitive world of non-profits, where every good deed can be just a click away. Nonprofit organizations eager to lure young supporters must increasingly find new and better ways to cut through the crowded room to reach their target.
The good news, according to the Chronicle on Philanthropy, is that the young rich are not afraid to give: among the nation’s top five philanthropists in 2012, three were couples under 40. The bad news: young supporters show little allegiance to organizations and hunger for “hands-on engagement.”
Across the nation and in Miami, that has put the pressure on organizations to come up with surprising events and creative partnerships.
The New World alumni foundation will live solely online, inhabiting a website that drums up support for the school, connects alums and provides a platform for their work. The site, scheduled to launch in January (www.NWSAAlumni.net), will let alums sell their work online or stage kick-starter campaigns to fund projects. It will also include notices for jobs and internships and, Schwartz hopes, trigger endless collaborations that benefit both the school and its graduates.
“We’re a community where a significant portion are still artists, which can be very lucrative, but is not always,” he explained. “So for us it’s really a matter of finding ways in which each person’s talent can contribute to the organization, and if they can contribute financially as well, that’s spectacular.”
Other groups are finding ways to reach supporters that have produced some interesting, and sometimes uniquely Miami, results.
Friends of the New World Symphony (http://nwsfriends.squarespace.com/), set themselves apart by going after other tribes. Its Pulse parties reach out to the late-night crowd by turning the center into a lounge that pairs a DJ with its classically trained musicians. A bike-themed concert and movie night taps into Miami’s growing cycling community and a yoga night — a mini concert followed by an hour-long yoga class — exposes fitness fans to music they might not necessarily consider. Or vice versa.
The United Way (http://www.unitedwaymiami.org/get-involved-top/young-leaders) organizes pub crawls while the South Florida chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (www.lls.org) has introduced MyLLS, a free app that lets tech-savvy supporters collect donations and organize events on their various devices.
Breakthrough Miami (www.breakthroughmiami.org) introduced itself to young professionals last year with a rooftop cocktail party at the Betsy in South Beach.
The organization, which provides academic enrichment to underserved students on some of Miami’s top private school campuses, got even more serious about engaging young supporters this year when it handed over a board seat to a 24-year-old.
“To be honest, the board was a little shocked at first,” said CEO Elissa Vanaver. “The question was, what is someone in their early 20s really going to bring to the table and everybody was convinced that he brings quite a lot.”
Garth Reeves, the 20-something in question, returned to Miami in 2011 after graduating from Emory University to run the Miami Times, the newspaper his family started 91 years ago.
“It was important for me, and my family felt it was important, that I get involved with those causes and organizations that are working within the black community,” he said.
A cousin, who sat on the board, suggested Breakthrough. As it turns out, Reeves had attended Miami Country Day School, one of the schools where Breakthrough holds its programs. The partnership seemed to check every box on the list.
“I want to help guide them and share ideas and create partnerships with the right groups to get the Breakthrough name out there so there’s a comfort level and parents know what it’s about,” Reeves explained. “I’m probably the youngest person on the board by at least 20 years. So in that sense I bring a different perspective altogether.”
Being “closer to the ground,” Vanaver explained, gives him insight critical to Breakthrough’s mission.
“Everything is changing so much these days: the world we’re sending our students out into, the things they need to know to be successful in college and beyond,” she said. “And if we can’t communicate that to the students, we’re not really executing our mission.”
There’s also a practical matter.
“We’re all going to get old and die. So you need the reinforcements to come in.”
To satisfy the desire for hands-on work, organizations are also using their young supporters to execute the service they provide.
“I’m a big proponent of asking people, ‘What can you bring to the table to further our mission?’” said Sandra Einhorn, executive director of Rebuilding Together Broward, an organization started in 2000 by AutoNation and JM Family Enterprises to repair and rebuild houses for needy homeowners.
In September, the organization launched its Young Professionals Task Force.
“The key to what we’re doing is to make people feel valued,” Einhorn said. “We don’t want volunteers to think they’re just a number, but we want them to recognize that what they do at Rebuilding Together has an impact”.
Rather than just ask supporters for money, volunteers make up the labor force that provides repairs, and works their network of friends and business associates to fill needs.
“Funding is tight and as nonprofits, we have to be creative, so we’re bartering and collaborating,” she said.
Professional networks also let younger donors understand how charitable work can not only satisfy a desire to give back, but help them in their careers.
“These large companies have role models for young leaders to see what they’ve gotten not only from their careers, but just personally giving,” said Dustin Symes, co-chair of the United Way’s Young Leaders Executive Committee and a first vice president at City National Bank.
So in addition to its popular Boos and Spirits Pub Crawl for Halloween and Luncheon with Leaders series, the United Way also helps companies create workplace campaigns tailored to excite young staff. Royal Caribbean, for example, stages a campaign that includes karaoke and super hero costumes.
“It’s a network. Everyone plays their role,” explained public relations director Yanet Obarrio Sanchez.
An entry point
Nonprofits can also provide a “point of entry” in a new city, said Leann Standish, deputy director of external affairs at the Perez Art Museum Miami, where membership has almost tripled in anticipation of the museum’s Dec. 4 opening. To attract younger supporters, the museum created PAMM Contemporaries and the Young Collectors.
The Contemporaries, which includes about 400 households, has its own steering committee creating events. The Collectors pay an additional $500 for the chance every year to pick a new work for the museum’s collection and, Standish said, has led to meetings brimming with “active debates.”
Like the New World Symphony, the museum tapped into the bike tribe by organizing bike tours of the Wynwood Walls hosted by curators, artists and authors. And along with well-attended socials, it hosts a popular Art Fair Survival Party, handing out passes and providing tips on navigating the sprawling Art Basel fairs.
“It’s young, dynamic and evolving,” Standish said. “It’s like a museum training ground for cultural leadership.”
Starting young can translate to a lifetime of support.
“It’s important to start very early to teach our children empathy for others because we’re not going to survive without nonprofits in the world,” said Emily Marquez, executive director of the South Florida chapter of the LLS, which holds its annual Light The Night celebration Nov. 9 in Broward and Nov. 16 in Miami-Dade.
When she was in high school, Ali Codina volunteered at The Barnyard, a community center that sprung from a social justice project founded in 1948 in Coconut Grove (www.coconutgrovecares.org). In 2003, when she returned to Miami after graduating from Bowdoin College, she immediately got involved and joined the board.
Codina, a filmmaker whose work includes the award-winning documentary Monica & David, now helps organize an annual high-end tag-sale at the swanky Village of Merrick Park in Coral Gables.
“My connection with the Barnyard at this point is very visceral. I don’t have to think about why I support it and when people ask, or if someone were to congratulate me on the work or whatever, it would feel silly because I haven’t felt like I had a choice. But in a good way.”
It has also allowed her to tailor her volunteering as her life changes.
After her son was born a year ago, she had less time for hands-on work. The annual fundraiser, Fashionably Conscious, is “just an easy excuse to engage people and it’s packaged in a way that’s easy to communicate what we’re doing and why,” she said. “God bless people when they just write a check. You need that just as much as when people volunteer.”
Young supporters say aging with an institution gives them a sense of belonging and being part of something bigger.
“When the organization started 10 years ago, it was very much a hip party organization, with phenomenal parties and lots of 20-somethings,” said Florencia Jimenez-Marcos, board president of the young patrons’ program, Friends of New World Symphony, who was recently elected to the symphony board.
But over the years, members realized “it really is about everyone working together and growing an audience today that will become supporters tomorrow,”.
So now, the group offers a variety of memberships in addition to hosting events such as Symphony After Hours for singles or the instrument petting zoos to draw young families..
“When you look at it from a purely entertainment dollar value, there are six events throughout the year (for Friends) so your social calendar is taken care of,” she said.
And filled with a diverse group of people.
“We have musicians and attorneys and bankers and everything in between because that’s just the kind of place Miami is.”
Jimenez-Marcos, who was born in Argentina and raised in Texas, found the group through friends after moving to Miami in 1999. And like Codina, she feels like she has grown up with the group she supports.
“We always joke that now we don’t know if any of us would be allowed to” join, she said. “We now have 450 members that are at a level that includes a concert subscription and a philanthropic contribution. It’s ridiculously high and that’s really key for us. We’re not just feeding a pipeline with younger 20-somethings. We’re moving along at different levels so we all grow together.”