Pittsburgh — Earlier this month, on the national day of philanthropy known as Giving Tuesday, about 100 employees of Dick's Sporting Goods showed up at the Sarah Heinz House on Pittsburgh's north side to clean, paint and decorate for the holidays.
While millions of people worldwide marked Giving Tuesday by making online donations to charities, the group from Dick's — many of them millennials in their 20s and 30s — worked side by side at the Sarah Heinz House with middle-school students who participate in clubs, lessons and other activities at the nonprofit facility.
"They completely cleaned and beautified gyms, kitchen areas and classrooms," said Deb Hopkins, executive director of Pittsburgh Cares, an organization that matches businesses and individuals with volunteer opportunities.
For millennials, she said, being involved in a hands-on activity that helps a group in need is often as fulfilling as pledging financial support.
"(Millennials) really want to see a direct impact."
Giving Tuesday — launched in 2012 as an antidote to the shopping frenzy between Thanksgiving Day and Cyber Monday — this year generated an estimated $116.7 million from nearly 700,000 donors, according to its founders, the 92nd Street Y in New York.
It also sparked a wave of grassroots volunteerism like the spruce-up at Sarah Heinz House. According to a study released this month, millennials are more inspired to give when charities provide such on-the-ground opportunities.
"We've learned that millennials deem monetary giving just as important as giving their time, skills and network to a cause," said Derrick Feldmann, leader researcher for The Millennial Impact Project, which studied how nine nonprofits conducted their Giving Tuesday fundraising campaigns.
Based in Indianapolis, the project was launched in 2009 to study and analyze millennial behavior. Its research on millennial giving is funded by the Case Foundation, which is run by philanthropists Steve and Jean Case. Case was a co-founder of America Online.
The project decided to study Giving Tuesday, said Feldmann, because it's a relatively new, digital-based initiative that has relied mainly on social media to generate contributions.
"It looks and feels like millennials should be a part of it and would be highly involved ... so we try to find out whether that's true or not."
The researchers recruited nine nonprofits — including Rutgers and Otterbein universities, the University of North Carolina and WBEZ public radio in Chicago — and studied their marketing efforts leading up to Giving Tuesday and how they promoted it the day of the event.
Nonprofits that used digital-only campaigns limited to emails and social media posts "didn't get the highest response rate" from millennials, said Feldmann.
But when nonprofits linked Giving Tuesday to actual events, "They got the most heightened millennial response," he said.
At the University of North Carolina, for example, a student-giving council and a young alumni leadership council hosted on-campus Giving Tuesday events.
UNC created its own hashtag for the day, #TarHeel Tuesday, and encouraged students to volunteer with a student ambassadors program and to share their photos on Snapchat.
The university raised about $236,000 — far exceeding its goal of $150,000 — including about $23,000 from millennials who accounted for 29 percent of all donors.
"A combination of digital, grass-roots and self-organizing strategies for millennials to own that day and experience it first hand will get a good response," Feldmann said.
In addition to the Dick's event at Sarah Heinz House, Pittsburgh Cares organized other Giving Tuesday activities including some involving sorting and packaging inventory for the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots initiative.
An evening event at the regional Toys for Tots storage facility was designed for families so that children could help their parents choose and pack toys designated for boys and girls in need.
"That's another trend: millennials very much want their children involved," Hopkins said. "I get four or five calls a day from people looking for volunteer opportunities for kids as young as 5 years old."
The concept of linking philanthropy to hands-on participation in charitable causes isn't limited to millennials though, she said.
"I wouldn't say they want that experience more than other people. They are more tech savvy but we see a tremendous amount of activity among baby boomers and our retired and senior volunteers."