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Sharmaine Wolfson works two jobs while attending nursing school part time. Like so many others, the 24-year-old West Hartford resident has felt the financial pinch from the COVID-19 shutdown. Despite the tough times, Wolfson believes that giving back financially to those less fortunate remains a priority. “To me, the best way to show my appreciation for all the blessings I’ve been given is to give back however and whenever I can,” she says.

Young adults like Wolfson — often referred to as millennials or Generation Y — are among the hardest hit by the economic impacts stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet they are also leading other age groups in the level of charitable giving, volunteering and activism, both in Connecticut and beyond, according to many experts in the state. 

Those born between 1981 and 1996 make up the largest age segment of the U.S. population, and generally, young adults in Gen Y are making their presence known in myriad ways, including in how they are willing to give back with their time and energy as well as with their wallets. Both anecdotally and statistically, people in their 20s and 30s are actively helping their communities, especially those in need, and Connecticut millennials are no exception.

“I absolutely see this trend with young people in Connecticut,” says Jessica Carlino, the volunteer engagement coordinator for United Way of Greater Waterbury, a nonprofit which serves 10 towns in Connecticut. “There is a real sense from millennials that they not only want to get involved in the forms of volunteering and activism, but they have a realization of the impact they can have. They know their voice matters and their impact can be significant simply by getting involved in their communities. They desire to see change and want to be a part of it — from helping to feed those less fortunate than them to helping eradicate poverty and creating lasting policy changes.”

"I don’t see this as a generation that wants to write a check and be done with it. They want to see how their donation is making an impact and affecting real change."

The Connecticut Council For Philanthropy’s manager of membership and culture, Bilal Tajildeen, says he sees a steady rise in activism, volunteerism and financial giving not only by millennials but also in support of young adult-driven programs. “Connecticut has a vibrant and active network of young community organizers who are pushing systems to meet the changing needs for a just and sustainable state,” Tajildeen says. “The Connecticut Council for Philanthropy is a membership organization for philanthropic entities across the state, and many of our members fund in the areas of youth development and youth organizing. There has been a sustained push over recent years to continue to support young people, as well as the giving back we see from young people themselves.”

Julianne Alberty, executive director of VolunteerSquare.com, which matches volunteers with nonprofits throughout Fairfield County and other parts of Connecticut, also sees evidence of a millennial drive to make a difference. “I feel like young people today are very motivated to give back. I also think that young people are more involved with issues in our country than in the past. I see many interested in improving the environment and being part of the solutions for homelessness and food insecurity, for instance.” 

Despite not yet reaching the same income levels as those in the next age groups above them — Generation X and baby boomers — slightly more than half of all millennials have donated money to nonprofits or charities at some point, according to numerous studies on charitable giving released over the past five years. 

Rebekah Castagno, manager of the United Way Emerging Leaders Society, says her experience working with those in their 20s and 30s is that they are eager to give their time and money to a cause or organization, “but it needs to be relevant, it needs to be impactful and it needs to be tangible.”

Castagno adds, “In general terms, I don’t see this as a generation that wants to write a check and be done with it. They want to see how their donation is making an impact and affecting real change.”

One interesting trend in millennial involvement, she says, is young people coming up with innovative ways to give monetarily and of their time at the same time. For example, the United Way Emerging Leaders group she leads, consisting of about 300 members ages 25 to 35, took part in a cookoff competition to help others hurting from the economic impacts of the COVID shutdown in the state. Volunteers each created a video from home on how to prepare a low-cost, healthy meal for a family of four, but also were tasked with raising $100 to participate that was donated to area nonprofits addressing food insecurity in the community caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. “That brought together a fundraising element, an empowering element because everybody got to know they were helping those in need, even though most of us were stuck at home, and it incorporated technology because everyone had to film their own video and post it to YouTube,” Castagno says. “The response was terrific, the process was fun and creative, and the results were tangible and impactful. I think that type of innovative giving strikes a chord with young people.”

Others involved in philanthropy throughout the state agree that millennials are giving differently than those who came before them.

“Anecdotally, young people in their 20s and 30s give back in different ways than older generations. Whereas an older adult may prioritize giving to institutions or nonprofits with which they feel connected, young people are more likely to give to specific causes or values,” Tajildeen notes. He adds that young people in general are more likely to give small amounts regularly rather than one large gift, breaking from more traditional ways of philanthropic support such as year-end giving or writing a large check during a donation drive.

The United Way’s Carlino agrees. “I see a general tendency from young people to give both their time and expertise, and financially if they’re able to,” she says. “There is a more recent trend to view ‘giving back’ as not just giving monetarily, but through the sacrifice of time and resources as well. This is great because it allows for more to get involved in new ways as well as become more connected to the work they’re doing.”

The role that technology plays in messaging, fundraising, connecting, promoting and recruiting volunteers or monetary donors is also a game-changer, experts say. “Social media has become a huge influencer for volunteering and activism and a way for young people to connect with others who are passionate about the same causes,” Alberty says.

Another promising aspect of people at an earlier age giving back monetarily, of their time or both is that once they start giving, they usually continue to do so throughout their lives, even if how they do so changes. 

“Something I heard once has really stuck with me and I think will play out is that all younger donors get to be older donors at some point, and while I do think that there will be shifts in what type of organizations and causes are supported, some of the donor behavior such as giving amounts, timing, estate planning, etc., will be correlated to where someone is in their lives in terms of disposable income, asset accumulation and life circumstances,” says Alison Woods, vice president and chief development officer for the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, a nonprofit serving more than 40 communities in the eastern third of the state. “But I think the desire to give back in some way is ageless.”

Wolfson, the nursing student from West Hartford, is a part of the United Way’s Emerging Leaders Society. “Whatever you put out into the world comes back to you tenfold,” she says. “That’s a cardinal rule I have.”

More ways to give back:

Involved millennials and charity pros offer advice for how to get involved and make a difference.

Use our volunteer matcher to find the opportunities to give back that are right for you.

Looking to volunteer? These local organizations can use a hand.

How you can do some good for others without added COVID risk.

These Connecticut charities will help your donated money or goods go further.

Still not sure which charity to give your hard-earned money? Ask givewell.org for suggestions.

Local organizations that need your donations.

Great ideas for helping older adults during the pandemic.

Some simple things you can do that spread joy and won’t cost you a thing.

Want to boost your own happiness and well-being? You can by helping others.

This article appears in the December 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.