From Feb. 16 to 18, the Penn State community will come together for a cause even greater than Nittany Lion football—the university's annual Dance Marathon. Said to be the largest student philanthropic enterprise in the world, THON has raised more than $41 million over its 34 years of existence for Hershey Medical Center's Four Diamonds Fund, which helps children with cancer.
Penn Staters prepare for THON all year. To raise money, members of fraternities, sororities, and other student organizations go on "canning" trips to their hometowns, jingling cash-filled cans to collect money for the children each group sponsors. Students also work to get private donations and corporate sponsorships.
The event culminates in a non-stop, no-sleep, two-day affair of dancing, games, and celebration for 700 selected dancers, most of whom are seniors being honored for their dedication to the cause. "Standing on my feet for 48 hours will never be as painful as the cancer treatments the kids have gone through," says senior dancer Kelly Davitt, a donor-relations captain for THON and member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority. Other students, parents, sponsors, and members of the PSU community also gather for the weekend of festivities along with THON kids and their families. And each year, THON grows.
Big Shoes to Fill
Davitt and other members of her generation, known as "millennials," are increasingly aware of and engaged in volunteer work, community service, and philanthropic activities. About 67% of students said helping others who are in difficult situations is an essential or very important objective, according to UCLA's annual survey, "The American Freshman—National Norms for 2006."
The report also found that 35.2% of undergrads think it's important to become leaders, and 42.5% believe it's important to influence social values, which is the highest that measure has been since 1993 (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/19/06, "Americans Dig Deeper for Charity").
So why are young people becoming civically engaged? The main reason is that millennials are stepping into a place where the generation they're replacing—the World War II-era GIs and Rosie the Riveters—was extremely civic-minded and socially responsible. "What we find in history is that the generations tend to replace the social role that all their life was powerfully associated with the generation that's now dying," says Bill Strauss, who has co-authored a number of books about the millennials, including Millennials Rising and Millennials Go to College.
Furthermore, millennials want to offset what are perceived to be the major flaws of their parents' group, the self-obsessed Baby Boom generation. "While Boomers felt they could improve on their parents by thinking thoughts and feelings, millennials look at their boomer parents and think, 'They couldn't deal with Katrina. They can't manage the economy properly,'" says Strauss. "The Boomers' cry was 'Hell no, we won't go.' The draft-resistance chant meant young men and women were resisting any sense of civic connection. A signature millennial movement right now is to draw civic connection."
The generational trend is encouraged by high schools and colleges, many of which require service learning as part of class or graduation requirements. It's drilled into many high-school students' minds that volunteering and contributing to the community looks good on a college application. College students are told that civic experience can boost their résumés or make them look more well-rounded when applying to graduate school.
"Over the course of time, [volunteer work] has become a habit, or students are expected to do so," says Allison Bacon, director of consumer insights for the AMP Agency (ALOY), a marketing agency focused on the youth market, which was involved in last year's Cone Millennial Cause Study. The study found that 63% of millennials feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world.
Hair Today, Change Tomorrow
As campus charitable groups proliferate they're also getting creative. This month, students at Notre Dame raised about $5,200 for homeless people in their area by collecting cash in the freezing-cold in T-shirts and shorts. Fraternity brothers at the University of Maryland annually serve up non-alcoholic drinks at their "virgin" party to raise money to combat drunk driving.
And at George Washington University, students find people to pledge money if they shave their heads or cut their hair as part of the Buzzing for Change event. Now, through the creation of a foundation, Buzzing for Change is expanding to other campuses. Other campus groups raise funding through comedy shows, plays, and other types of performance. (To see some examples of student charitable activities, see the BusinessWeek.com slideshow, 2/15/07, "Charity Begins on Campus.")
Some schools are taking the cause extremely close to home, starting at the universities themselves. Institutions including Georgia Tech, Penn State, the University of Kentucky, and Indiana University have teams of students who promote alumni giving.
"Culture of Philanthropy"
Now in its second year, Penn State's Student Philanthropy Council is made up of about a dozen hand-picked undergrads, all involved in campus life, who help raise awareness about the impact alumni gifts can have on the university. Members focus on the student-experience angle when promoting their cause and soliciting donations—including scholarships, improving facilities, and purchasing new materials, says Lauren Steinberg, assistant director of Penn State's Office of Annual Giving.
"We're creating a culture of philanthropy and making it O.K. to ask for money and give back," says Steinberg.