Guides & Resources

Not My Generation! How to Communicate with Sensitivity

My Generation album

It’s official – there are five generations in the workforce. Traditionalists, or the silent generation (pre 1946), baby boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1976), millennials (1977-1997), and now Gen Z (1997 and later).

This is important to mark for a number of reasons – succession planning, diversity and inclusion, and accessibility, to name a few – but perhaps the most critical reason to acknowledge this shift is that we have to be more aware of how we communicate with each other, as well as manage and structure our workplaces.

In my last article, I came out of the millennial closet and shared some insights into what it means to be a member of the workforce as a member of the oft-maligned generation of twenty-two to forty-two-year-olds constituting the millennial generation. In this article, I want to take a moment to examine intergenerational management strategies you can apply to be an effective leader, effective employee, and effective fundraiser.

Some Assumptions to Watch out For

Don’t Focus on Age

Okay, okay, I know this is the entire point of the article, but seriously! Don’t focus on a person’s age in either a donor meeting or in a workplace setting because it is completely ancillary to the reason you’ve even meeting in the first place!

Don’t forget, young people in the workforce almost never feel “young,” and old people almost never feel “old!” They probably feel no different about themselves as you do about yourself – and so treating them as a professional in a professional context and a person in a personal context before making age-based assumptions is key.

In terms of fundraising, it might be commonplace for fundraisers to work with donors much older than they are, especially related to planned-giving conversations. However, we’re now at a precipice where many senior fundraisers might begin to work with donors younger than they are. With this will come a set of assumptions about that individual, their capacity, their willingness, and even their relationship with the entire concept of philanthropy.

Shelve those things! You might be proven right, but I’m going to guess more often than not the “ass-u-me” rule will apply here.

Remember Your “Major Events” and Their Influence

The “Where Were You When” conversation can reveal a lot about a person and the types of major, defining events that didn’t just shape them as a person, it might have shaped their entire cultural reference point. For example, Gen Z’ers were four years old during 9/11, and many folks who are still working today were alive at the end of World War II. Think about all of the incredible and fundamental societal shifts that happened thereafter during the span of these generations. Some people might remember the civil rights movement like it was yesterday, and others might be distinctly aware and plugged into today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Assuming that an individual’s cultural reference points are the same as yours won’t just lead to awkwardness or miscommunication, it could create serious conflict.

We can learn a lot about how an individual looks at the world. Baby boomers, for example, remember the Vietnam War vividly, and the anti-war sentiments that prevailed then, by their lived experiences.

Lifestyles Evolve

Do you remember what you did for your twenty-first birthday? How about your forty-fifth?

If those nights looked the same, then either kudos to you for your party-lifestyle longevity or kudos to you for being the world’s most responsible twenty-one-year-old. My guess, though, is that they might look very different – if one or both have even happened at all! And guess what? That’s totally okay!

As you mature and age, so do your priorities. You might begin to focus on family, you might value time in, you might enjoy smaller groups, and the ways in which you want to spend your free time will be fundamentally different.

This can be a big driver of conflict in both fundraising communications, as well as in a work context. I’ve personally found myself offering to meet donors at a certain green-branded coffee shop and finding more often than not that their answers, whether positive or negative, are tied to age and their experience with the brand. Have you ever considered that the Friday Afternoon Beer might be exclusionary to colleagues that need to pick up their kids?

There’s nothing wrong with not everybody being able to do everything – but just remember the lifestyle difference the next time you plan an “all-staff” social gathering that simply won’t work for all staff.

Communication Strategies

Take Preferences into Account

Communication preferences absolutely vary from generation to generation, and this can be of critical importance in both fundraising communications and management communications.

For example, when it comes to feedback on performance, the more recent generations prefer frequent feedback, millennials want either bi-weekly or monthly formalized performance feedback, and traditionalists and boomers lean to either quarterly or annual formal feedback.

How could this apply to your donors? Well, think about who’s going to be following you across the multiple platforms you’ve worked so hard to develop, so will be seeing all the things you put out into the world – while enjoying the frequency? Your millennial donor might follow you digitally on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook on top of their receipt of your regularly scheduled fundraising communications – and doing so over the phone, in person, and via mail. Your traditionalist donor, who prefers more infrequent communication, might not be checking in on you as much, so the high-level touchpoints they do receive are that much more important.

When it comes to professional communication and collaboration, acknowledging preferences while also setting an appropriate standard of business rules is critical. Just because somebody doesn’t like email doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere, and the efficacy of the face-to-face meeting is unparalleled. But making process and communication decisions in a vacuum will lead to conflict if different perspectives are ignored!

Work-Life Balance is Key

In numerous surveys, baby boomers have identified that they’re more willing than the Gen X, millennial, and Gen Z generations to put career over personal lives. Increasingly in younger workers, work-life balance has become a more pressing concern related to job satisfaction.

Interestingly, this might flip some assumptions on their head! When you think about somebody on their phone all the time, the age of the person you’re picturing is probably young – and yet according to research, your baby boomer manager is more likely to communicate after work hours than your Gen Z manager is.

Setting clear, two-way expectations from the get-go is critical. Studies show that if you make an exception about when and how you’ll reply to work-related communications outside of your regular work hours, you’re more likely to continue to receive them because people will feel it appropriate to reach out to you this way. What a cycle!

This goes for donors, too. How does one balance the primacy of an individual wishing to make a multi-million-dollar contribution with the primacy of their right to a life outside of work hours? Again, clear boundaries are key, and it is up to leaders to set clear expectations that take into account everybody’s lifestyles, lived experiences, and preferences.

Mentorship Goes Both Ways

As more traditionalists and boomers age out of the workforce, you might be faced with a situation in which there is a significant gap in age and experience between you and somebody you either report to, or who reports to you.

The bounds of social convention might make this seem awkward, but there’s a very easy way to avoid this – simply acknowledge it.

As the younger person, you need to recognize that if you’re supervising somebody much older than you, they’ve got years more experience than you do. Don’t try and punch above your weight when it comes to wisdom – acknowledge this shortcoming, ask questions, and then recognize your direct report for their help.

As the elder, you need to recognize that having somebody younger than you supervise you isn’t an insult or a wound to pride – it simply means they’ve got technical or job-related expertise you lack. Be the more mature person, and don’t be afraid to make yourself available for two-way coaching. At the end of the day, your technical expertise will improve, and they’ll learn how to manage you better. Win-win.

None of This Matters, and It All Depends

Of course, at the end of the day, a one-size-fits-all approach to intergenerational communication and management is precisely the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid.

If you’ve been reading between the lines of the article, the carry-forward message is that it completely depends on the situation, the people involved, and the context, as to how to look to communication across generational lines. It is also critical to recognize formal rules and structures and how they feed in here too – at the end of the day, your boss is your boss, business policies and procedures are there for a reason, and fundraising best practices should, where possible, be donor-centric (meaning all or none of these rules could apply!).

If you’ve read this far, and think that it’s all a load of hooey, then do me a big favor and just take one thing away – the next time you look at somebody and find yourself thinking about their age, stop and ask yourself why. You might surprise yourself with what you’ll learn about the prevalence of unconscious prejudice.

Dane Shumak is a Certified Fundraising Executive and a nonprofit leader currently working at Trent University as the Development Officer of Annual Giving. He has specific expertise in the charitable educational and arts and culture sectors, having worked in numerous areas in both fields. He is an active volunteer and board member and is heavily involved in his communities in both Peterborough and Toronto.

In his admittedly limited spare time, Dane does consulting to assist burgeoning charities in developing their fundraising programs. He is a graduate of the Trent University Business Administration Program and Seneca College Fundraising Management program.

This article was originally published on Feb. 25, 2019 on the Charity Channel website. It is reprinted here with permission.

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