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Millennials and the Presidential Election Cycle: Does Cause Engagement Change in an Election Year?

June 21, 2016

Patriotic-thumbs-up-buttonFew things in the life of our nation serve to heighten awareness of particular social issues and causes more than a presidential election cycle. And given the historic (and boisterous) nature of this particular cycle, my research team and I wanted to understand how – if at all – millennials' philanthropic interests and engagement might change in response to the campaigns mounted by various major-party candidates, and whether these changes were influenced by demographic factors such as gender, age, and political ideology.

Our research has consistently shown that millennials value cause-related work and make a point of engaging with causes that align with their interests. At the same time, the research we've conducted to date in 2016 shows that millennials are more likely to passively engage with a cause – for example, signing a petition – than actively engage through volunteering, participating in a demonstration, or making a donation.

Indeed, although three out of four (76 percent) millennial respondents in the first phase of our study believe they can help to affect change on a social issue in which they're interested, only one out of two (50 percent) had volunteered for and/or donated to a cause aligned with an issue they care about in the past month. Our research also uncovered that, to date, slightly more than half had supported a community project (defined as any kind of cause work that addresses the shared concerns of members of a defined community) aligned with a cause they're interested in, while only one in three had participated in a demonstration (i.e., a rally, protest, boycott, or march) in the past month.

In contrast, two out of three millennial respondents indicated they had signed a petition related to an issue they care about in the past month.

Cause Engagement by Gender

When looking at cause engagement by gender, the first wave of our 2016 research (March to May 2016) found that male millennial respondents are more engaged in cause participation of all types (volunteering, donating, supporting community projects, participating in demonstrations, signing petitions) during this presidential election year than are female millennial respondents.

That was a bit of a surprise, given that in general females are more likely to engage with a cause than males. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, found that in 2015 women were 6 percent more likely than males to volunteer [1], while research by the Women's Philanthropy Institute consistently finds that, in almost every income bracket, women give more than men [2]. Similarly, our 2014 Millennial Impact Report found that female millennials were more likely than male millennials to donate to and volunteer for causes they care about [3].

But as other research (Kittilson, 2016) finds, women are less likely than men to get involved in politics [4]. So while females are more likely to engage with a cause or causes that are not aligned with a particular political issue, research from the first wave of our 2016 study thus far shows that during a presidential election year, male millennials are more likely to engage with a cause or causes that are aligned with issues they care about.

Cause Engagement by Age and Political Ideology

The first wave of our research also shows that more than half of respondents between the ages of 25 and 36 identified their political ideology as conservative-leaning, compared to 41 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24. And it showed that older millennial respondents (ages 25-36) and those who self-identify as conservative-leaning are more likely to engage with a cause than those on the younger side of the spectrum (ages 18-24) or those who self-identify as liberal-leaning.

Our earlier 2014 Millennial Impact Report found that older millennials – those age 30 or above – are more likely to be engaged with a cause than younger millennials [5]. That's a finding seemingly confirmed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found that older millennials volunteered in large numbers in 2015, while millennials between the ages of 20 and 24 were least likely to engage in volunteer activity [6]. Furthermore, millennials in older age groups are also more likely to identify as having conservative-leaning ideologies.

Our first trends report gives rise to a number of observations and questions, including: Will millennials' engagement with issues they care about increase as the two major-party candidates are nominated by their respective conventions and the general campaign gets under way in earnest? Will they move from passive engagement to more active engagement? And will the engagement of male millennials with cause-related issues they care about continue to outpace the engagement of female millennials? One thing I'm sure of is that this year is different than most other years simply because it is a presidential election year.

You can keep up with the results of our study of millennial cause behavior throughout this election year at themillennialimpact.com. And be sure to keep an eye out for the full results and findings of our research after Election Day.

Headshot_derrick_feldmannDerrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and marketing agency for causes, and the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


[1] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm

[2] http://fortune.com/2014/10/20/dispelling-myths-about-women-and-charitable-giving/

[3] http://www.themillennialimpact.com/

[4] http://politics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-71

[5] http://www.themillennialimpact.com/

[6] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm

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Posted by Kelley Renz  |   June 23, 2016 at 09:29 AM

I was teaching Sunday School to young millennials and I noted that their concern for social justice issues did not translate into action. I couldn't move them into DOING something about the things they cared for! We need more research into HOW to get their concern for a better world to translate into action. We need to find a way to convince them that making the time to act and finding the $ to spend are worth it, even as they face huge student loan bills and more than one job. Acting inspires and empowers. Giving, even in small amounts, gives one a sense of control. Control and empowerment are desperately needed in these troubling times...

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