INTERVIEW: Engaging Younger Donors with Devin Kelly, Founder of Oregon Active

Today, in order to help nonprofits learn more about how to engage younger donors, we’re chatting with Devin Kelly. Devin is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Active.


Mazarine Treyz: What was your background in the nonprofit field before you started your nonprofit?

Devin Kelly: I didn’t have any background in nonprofits. My background was in commercial real estate. Back in 2001 I came down with a rare spinal condition, the doctors didn’t know anything about it, I had to be faced with if I was ever going to be able to walk again, I was paralyzed, and through that, that shifted priorities and it made me think of what I wanted to do.  I didn’t really have a background, but I made a promise to myself if I could walk again, if I healed myself what would I do? I decided that I would get people more active, but get people together to do active things, but also involve giving back to the community.

There was no surgery, no pills or anything like that, but mind over matter, and at my darkest point, about 6 months into it, I had bedsores, and I really wanted to get up and I thought about what I had lost, I thought about what I couldn’t do, and I switched my thinking and thought about, what if I can walk again, what could I do? Once I switched that frame of mind, and about 6 months later I was healed and could deliver on my promise.

MT. Why did you start Oregon Active?

DK: It’s funny how it came about, I wanted it to be flexible, it wasn’t going to be a business.  I wanted to set up adventures and getting my friends active, but I also wanted to show the importance of giving back to the community and helping others. What I found was, it’s easy to get them to go on adventures, go bungee jumping and stuff, but when you try to get them to donate, you see a lot of, “when I’m rich I’ll be a philanthropist” and “I can’t afford it” I didn’t want to guilt anyone into giving back, but at the same time I saw that they just bought a snowboard or a ski pass, so it’s about priorities. I had to inspire them to give back. If I can use what they already love to do, I’d set up a trip, I’d negotiate with a vendor for a discount and give those proceeds to charity. It started like that with 10 of my friends. Every trip we would give to different charities, but it felt great to give back, but it was that group bonding experience that made it gain momentum.  So I thought, what if we started our own nonprofit and did that same thing? What if we could share that bonding? What if we go white water rafting and take some at-risk youth, or if we go bungee jumping, we could take some people with disabilities bungee jumping or hiking?

There’s so many young and old people who want to be involved in nonprofits, but there’s not a lot of ways in an engagement component, there’s write a check, dial for dollars, but it doesn’t inspire you to do more. We wanted to be different. We wanted to let our donors engage with the people we serve, make it a hands-on involvement, people could donate and see directly where their donation was going but then also be a part of it, get to meet these inspirational athletes and be a part of it. It’s our model. We try to engage our donors in a sustainable way.

MT. What kind of donor does your nonprofit primarily have?

DK: We have private donors and corporations. We don’t do grants. We get corporate employees to volunteer together. We have mainly 30 to 45 year olds, and then after that 25-30 year olds, and then 45 and up, we primarily have younger donors.

MT. What are some of the ways you engage Gen X and Gen Y?

DK: Through our adventure therapy programs. So for instance, we just finished a stand-up paddle-boarding expedition, a disabled athlete named Nathan paddled from Eugene to Portland over 3 days, and we took our donors to celebrate at the end, to participate at the end, in a hands on way, and Nathan is going to lead everyone on a stand up paddle-boarding adventure for someone else who has a disability. People don’t just see where their money goes, they actually get to be a part of it. That’s where the disconnect is with a nonprofit, if you truly want to get involved, hands on where you’re a part of the adventure, that’s really helped us. Getting their donations by inspiring instead of soliciting. We’d rather just inspire them.

MT. I think it’s innovative that you’re doing this. I think a lot of nonprofits struggle to engage younger donors and make them care. It seems like you’re doing this without a map. Have you ever heard of anyone else doing this?

DK: No, I haven’t heard of anyone else doing this. That’s why it is exciting and unique, and what we find that if they come on our adventure therapy programs, that might inspire them to become a big brother or a big sister or do more. It changes their perspective on their lives as well. If you spend an afternoon white water rafting with someone who is blind, it allows you to look at what you thought your excuses were. It inspires you, but on the flip side,

It inspires the person you’re helping, because they are helping too. When they come on the trip, with someone with a disability, they help the next person on that trip. They’re a part of the adventure therapy team. That’s what I needed. I learned that when I was sick, I got over the fact that I might not be able to walk. But the part that killed me more than that, I couldn’t do anything. I never felt like I was helping somebody. Everyone wants to help. When you have something terrible happen and you’re disabled, sometimes what people who are disabled really need is the ability to help someone else. You get so much help you start to feel guilty. You lose a lot. It’s empowering to someone with disabilities to help. We help you on the first one, introduce you to the team and gain the trust, and the next trip, they come and they help, whether it’s the barbecue or the filming or the actual instruction of it. We don’t just want to give you a rafting trip because you deserve it, but we want to get you involved as well. The people with disabilities feel like they’re helping. And they are. Everyone is helping. We all have our issues, our life challenging conditions. Ask someone in a wheelchair if they want to go rafting, and all the programs available are with 10 other people in a wheelchair, if they don’t define someone by their disability, the only thing they have in common is that they are all in wheelchairs. We want to break down that wall. We are all here to whitewater raft. We are not here to fix anyone, we are trying to provide an opportunity to go on outdoor adventures. They then get to help someone else instead of getting helped all the time. Not that they don’t need it or deserve it, that’s another way we look at it differently, we know that everyone wants to help. We decided to provide that platform for people who are disabled to help others if they want to.

MT. What have you noticed as particularly successful fundraising efforts with these younger donors?

DK: People do have to fundraise to go on these trips. That’s a newer thing. We have to worry about donor fatigue, with the younger generation they don’t have a lot of extra income, when they come on the trips it’s successful.  But if we don’t align our brand with the fundraiser, if it doesn’t have to do with adventure, it’s harder to cultivate that inspiration to want to give. Versus if we do an event that they’re working with an individual with disabilities. We’re starting to see that it is hard to get to that annual budget with 25-30 year olds, so we are starting to work with corporations, so their employees get that hands on engagement and with our members not everything we have to do they have to fork out money. It’s a learning process. We have no map. We have to listen to the donors, listen to the athletes and the participants that help us, we learned that the more you engage, the more they’re going to give. The less you engage, the more we have to sell it. We’re trying to engage them to want to give.

A lot of our events are free. These are some of our best turnouts, and they get engaged and they end up donating on the back end because they were excited to be a part of it. We’re finding that better ways to engage people regardless of the demographic, to keep them loyal, if you get donor fatigue, we are still trying to figure it out.

MT. Do these donors want a longer volunteer commitment, or a shorter volunteer commitment?

DK: People want to engage with something Longer.. but it’s not about what they want, but how we execute that engagement piece. If we don’t do a good job of engaging them, well, then they get busy and we don’t see them again. If we do a better job, then they engage and they’re loyal. Engage in their intentions and their motives. We want that like-minded person. We want people who want to give and help, whether long term or short term, it has to do with individual motives. For people who it’s all about them, they don’t stick around, but people who really want to help, they’re there every single time. It’s 50/50 with matching our engagement with matching their personalities. It’s our responsibility to keep them engaged.

MT. What have you tried with donor engagement that has not worked as well?

DK: Because we’re a younger demographic, we’ll get a lot of events, they want to throw a party, and make us a beneficiary, which is great because you always want donations, but if it’s just a party, then there’s this disconnect, then it’s just a bunch of young people partying, and if that’s someone’s first event with Oregon Active, but if our event is the stand-up paddle board event, and you’re watching an inspirational athlete do something that inspires you, it’s like a drug. We’ve learned the hard way, you might need money but it needs to align with your brand and what you’re trying to accomplish. If people are not going to leave inspired and that’s our whole goal, then maybe it’s okay to pass on this one. Focusing on keeping everything consistent and we learn the hard way a few times, and we make mistakes and missed opportunities, the more we are aligned with our mission, then people have a really good idea of what we do, and that’s where we starting to go, we simplify what we do, JUST adventure therapy. We say no to things that are just parties.  It’s hard to turn down the donation, but I’d rather have a smaller amount of people who really know the message rather than masses of people who hear our name but don’t really get what we do.

MT. Do you have any advice for people who want to attract more donors and volunteers who are Gen X or Gen Y?

DK: Not to beat a dead horse, it is that engagement, find out why they are so passionate. Find more people to do what they’re passionate about. Include those people who are passionate in the part that makes them passionate. If you’re an animal nonprofit, look for volunteers, people who already love animals, identify and align with your demographic. Find people who are as passionate about the cause as you are. Don’t just give them a paper pushing job. Find out why they wanted to get involved. Instead of giving them a task, listen to what they want and involve them and engage them. Sometimes that younger generation wants instant results. Often times those cans need to get sorted, but people say, that didn’t do much for me. Or people want to see where their money goes. Identify with them, listen to them, find out why they wanted to volunteer in the first place. If I never got to work with the athletes, I wouldn’t be as inspired to help. That’s my reward for all the work! I can’t hog all that inspiration! I want to share it. I have to include people in on that, that’s what keeps me going. If there’s someone who just updates our facebook page, and they never get to go on a trip, they are going to get really bored. Find the root of why you do what you do, and include EVERYONE in on that part. If you can do that, that’s how you create that loyal following. Don’t just give them the boring jobs.

MT. How can people get in touch with you, if they have more questions?

DK: You can email me at and you can call me at 503-750-7961. Feel free to shoot me an email at

Thanks so much for being with us today Devin! It has been an education!

Any more questions for Devin? Please leave a comment.

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