The staff of CoppaFeel! are never more at home than at the festivals they attend each year. They shower people with glitter, give them temporary tattoos and say: "Hi, have you ever thought of checking your boobs?"
Ten years ago, this is where Kris Hallenga began her journey after being diagnosed with incurable secondary breast cancer at the age of 23.
Although she didn’t realise it at first, Hallenga and her twin sister were founding a charity, one that now generates an income of £1.5m, supports 12 staff and has an unmissable youth focus.
Young people are, the old adage goes, the future. From climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s school strikes over global warming to 19-year-old Amika George’s campaign to end period poverty, to students across the US staging walkouts to protest gun laws, the up-and-coming generation of young adults is arguably one of the most engaged in society. But how is their relationship with charitable organisations changing, and how best can the voluntary sector harness their unstoppable energy?
Phoebe Lazell, Uni Boob Team and student fundraising manager, says meeting young people face to face at places such as festivals remains central to CoppaFeel! Once that connection has been forged, it retains supporters by visiting universities and other venues, connecting with its audience "in their natural habitat," rather than through targeted fundraising asks. "We see people at uni who say ‘hi, we saw you at a festival’," says Lazell. "We have these touch points: people see us on the news, or on Instagram or Facebook."
In an ever-digitalised world, CoppaFeel! is no stranger to technology: its free text message service, which sends monthly reminders to "check your boobs", currently goes out to 60,000 people. But Lazell describes the strategy as more face-to-face than online.
The proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds who donate to charities has fallen from 80 per cent to 73 per cent between 2018 and 2019, the biggest fall in all age groups
Indeed, the assumption that Generation Z – those born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s – are best reached through the internet might be misplaced. According to Third Sector’s report Donating Trends in the UK, they are less likely to have recently visited charity websites than their older counterparts, while a significantly larger percentage of 35 to 44-year-olds have visited charity Facebook pages than 16 to 24-year-olds. True, young people are more likely to have seen a charity’s YouTube channel, but less than a fifth have done so recently. Even CoppaFeel!’s social media metrics suggest just 20 per cent of people first heard of the charity online.
The fundraising consultant and trainer Nikki Bell says it’s an oversimplification to assume everything needs to be digital for Gen Z: instant gratification is not a necessity. "Young people have emotions and needs," she says. "They have their own personal experiences that upset them and make them angry. They want to make a difference in the world."
Donating Trends supports this. More 16 to 24-year-olds say they give to charity to help others (see pie charts) than do those from older age groups, who more commonly seek to support a "cause they believe in", a concept that is arguably more abstract and less focused on alleviating the suffering of others.
Anecdotes from young volunteers highlight the intensely personal motivations that lead them to get involved. Rosie Heaton, 21, has volunteered for Meningitis Now since her teens, after losing her best friend to the illness. "The charity offered me a lot of support when I needed it, so it felt only right that I channelled my energies into giving back when I could," she says. "Trying to help people who were experiencing similar things to me allowed me to find my place in the world."
Others are driven by the bigger picture: 19-year-old Hector Duncan has worked in the voluntary sector since the age of 15, because charities (including Humanitas and Raleigh International) support him in tackling global issues such as hygiene awareness in developing countries. "I started watching the news every morning in primary school, which had a huge impact on my world view," he says. "From a really young age I wanted to make a difference."
No silver bullet
Whatever the cause, charities hoping that technology is the silver bullet to boost youth engagement are likely to be disappointed, says John Dunford, campaigns lead at the Developer Society, a digital agency that helps not-for-profits. "It can be very difficult to experiment with technology when you should be running food banks, even though it could pay off in the long run," he says.
He advises against taking material designed for other uses, such as a direct-mail fundraising appeal, wedging it into a YouTube video and expecting it to perform. "You have to take the story you need to tell and create these like other people create YouTube videos," he says.
But that can mean competing with the way commercial organisations create or promote content, and that’s a serious challenge. A company such as Jungle Creations, the digital media firm behind a number of immensely successful viral videos and memes, has a good handle on what works. "But its whole business model concerns virality, and it can have up to 200 people working on it," Dunford explains. "For a charity with a person working part-time in your digital department, it is an unfair standard to measure against."
Charities, he says, should trial new ventures on a small level, but should equally make the most of proven technologies. There is huge potential in putting more time and resources into fundraising technology, email lists, improving conversion rates and keeping a close eye on investment returns, Durnford says.
For the first time since the Donating Trends report started in 2016, there has been a fall in the proportion of people who say they donate to charities – and the drop among younger groups is among the largest. This, Heaton says, is not down to apathy or an unwillingness to help, but that for many money just isn’t an option. "It isn’t viable or a priority to donate to charity when you’re struggling to survive yourself," she says.
Other young volunteers share this view. "As a university student, I bear the financial pressure of a £9,250-a-year tuition fee loan, as well as maintenance loans," says 18-year-old Charles Kingston, who volunteers with the Ocean Youth Trust, a charity that supports vulnerable and disadvantaged young people through sailing. "We feel the strain of those loans and, although they don’t need to be paid off immediately, being in a university setting keeps you constantly aware of them."
Young people outside the higher education system arguably face an even more precarious future. "Lots of us are in low-waged employment," Duncan says. "We live in the gig economy, so many don’t have economic security and stability.
"The cost of living has risen so much that many young people just can’t afford the lifestyles that previous generations were accustomed to."
But although young people might be cash-strapped, they are increasingly giving their time. Asked about volunteering, 33 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds say they have done so in the past six months, up from 27 per cent in 2018. That figure is also significantly higher than for other groups, with only 11 per cent of over-55s having done so, for example.
"In a world where young people can feel very out of control, volunteering can be an empowering experience," Heaton says. "So many of us feel passionately about issues across the board – from politics to climate change and protecting refugees – but might not have the financial means to help. Offering time and support helps us to respond in a meaningful and tangible way."
Ocean Youth Trust volunteer Kingston wholeheartedly agrees with this view. He says: "A small donation [to the trust] would make a contribution to the cost of one young person’s berth, whereas five days of my summer holiday – which I have lots of, unlike money – will make a big difference to 12 young people."
One charity that is pivoting its strategy to capitalise on this is the Canal & River Trust. Lucie Unsworth, participation development partner for youth and civil society at the trust, admits that young people have not traditionally been the organisation’s target market. But since 2012 youth engagement has been a strategic priority, and the trust is currently recruiting for its first national youth panel.
Volunteering does not necessarily mean working on the waterways. Two years ago the charity’s Digital Edge project enabled a group of between 12 and 15 young people to work alongside a professional youth marketing agency. "It took over all our digital channels, advising us what we should be doing on Instagram and Facebook and generating new content for our website," says Unsworth. She particularly advises against tokenistic consultations. She says: "Young people see through that nowadays."
Part of the picture
Nikki Bell agrees that the younger generation is looking to do more than just give money. "Young people don’t want to be bystanders: they want to be part of
the picture," she says. Understanding that this demographic can be a lot more time-poor than is often recognised, with significant commitments to jobs, studying or family, is important – as is working to facilitate them. "You need tools so they can be involved even when they are not physically present," Bell says. She uses an online chat platform to maintain the active involvement of busy young people.
So what major turn-offs should charities be aware of when looking to engage this generation? Donating Trends suggests that senior executive pay levels at charities don’t bother young people too much: only 21 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds, and 25 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds, expressed concern about this, compared with 49 per cent of those aged 55 and older.
What does bother them is being pressured to donate and when charities fail to say how their money is spent. Not knowing enough about the charity also reduces trust among young people much more than among older people: 27 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds mentioned this, compared with a total of just 17 per cent across all age groups.
"Feedback loops in charities are an important factor," Heaton argues. "The impact of donations isn’t always clear, and I think young people value connections and direct, personalised communications, which leads us to volunteering time and skills instead of money. It’s about being able to see the immediate impact and, at a time when public trust in charities is wavering, remaining in control of your contribution."
Nico Stevens, chief operating officer of Help Refugees, which started as a hashtag in 2015 and within two years was distributing nearly £9m to projects across the world, says it learned the value of telling donors, many of them young adults, how their money has been spent. "If we did a call-out for tents and we raised £500, the next day we would post those tents being distributed on social media," she says. "It’s that kind of radical transparency young people really love. It builds trust quickly."
It’s equally important to be responsive. Facebook, which Help Refugees used heavily in the early days for news about the camps in Calais, has become less popular with young people over the past 18 months, Stevens says: "We get most of our engagement from Instagram and Twitter now."
Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson, 26, chair of the British Youth Council, agrees with this trend. "We are the generation that is better at using social media to get quick and distinct messages across," she says. "It becomes really obvious quite quickly which youth-focused charities are allowing their Instagram feeds to be led by young people. You get a lot more interaction and, in the next couple of years, it will be organisations that learn how to harness the power of Instagram and Instagram Live that really connect with young people en masse."
Like CoppaFeel!, Help Refugees sees itself as distinctly different from conventional charities – which, Stevens believes, risk excluding young people by entrenching themselves in the industry of aid and using messaging that perpetuates the "us" and "them" dichotomy.
Young people approach things differently, she says: as movements, not as individuals. Their action is increasingly intersectional, with the climate change movement, "refugees welcome" and other causes overlapping and driving the desire for action.
Positivity and connecting with fellow human beings, it seems, are the answers. Young people want to help – the challenge is empowering them do so in a meaningful way.
"We have a responsibility to work together in tackling the many issues we face in the world today," Duncan says. "Young people are the key to that."
Case study: Nicola Mirims, fundraising flautist
A chance comment on a podcast, Why Not Now?, got 28-year-old Nicola Mirams (left) thinking about how she could make a difference in her local community.
Mirams plays the flute and had busked before, so she decided to embark on a charity challenge for 2018: busking for a different charity in a different place in the country each month. At the start she had no idea where she would go or who she would busk for.
Her eventual choices confirm many of the findings in Donating Trends — heavily slanted towards personal connections from friends and family, and smaller, community-based organisations. Her starting point was the neonatal unit where she was born and the Alzheimer’s Society for her grandfather, who had dementia. Supported by partner and parents, who held collection buckets, she raised a total of £2,200 over her year’s challenge.
One of Mirams’ busks was streamed live from her home, with a JustGiving fundraising page replacing collecting tins. People were just as likely to give for this as with conventional busking.
Part of her motivation was a desire to shine a spotlight on good things happening: "I wanted to visit an area, help to have a positive impact on it and support charities that might have been overlooked.
"As a charity giver, I tend to give one-off donations, even if there are causes that I would like to support more often. I like ease and convenience: I’m more likely to give through JustGiving or text."
Marketing literature is a real turn-off for her. "I have never signed up to a charity because of a charity rep encouraging me to join," she says.