By Sharna Goldseker, Executive Director, 21/64
When we think of philanthropy, we tend to think of Gilded Age titans like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who pioneered modern private foundations, named gifts and built institutions such as libraries, universities and parks, now pillar institutions of society. America’s next generation of major donors – those Generation Xers and millennials giving their earned and inherited wealth – are less familiar, yet they will have an outsized impact on society, possibly even more than Bill and Melinda Gates today. These “next gen donors” not only have unprecedented financial resources, but also aim to wield their financial power to effect social change – and want to do so now, not wait for their wealth to accumulate and retire to a life of philanthropic leisure. They want to understand today’s greatest needs, and they have the resources – time, capital and knowledge – to help meet those needs.
Next gen donors will lead a new golden age of giving, one that emerges from what some have called the “new gold rush.” Tech sector, hedge funds and other industries are generating enormous wealth for entrepreneurs at younger ages. This new wealth now joins the $59 trillion in inherited wealth being transferred from older generations to their adult Gen X and millennial children. Nearly half, and maybe more, of that transferred wealth will be designated for philanthropic purposes.
Given the potential for these wealthy young people to become the most significant donors in history, Michael Moody, who is the Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, and I have spent the past five years researching this important population. We share what we have learned in our forthcoming book, Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving.
We believe that as family members, advisors, fundraisers and even citizens, we must understand the mindset of these next gen donors – and their outsized impact – as we engage, advise and collaborate with them. To arrive at this understanding, we conducted a national survey and 75 in-depth interviews with high-capacity 21- to 40-year-olds, and then analyzed this data in light of our combined 45 years of experience in philanthropy.
Three of the next gen donors we interviewed – Ashley Blanchard, Emily Davis and Jason Franklin – agreed to share more of their stories and offer us a window into how this generation approaches their wealth and philanthropy. These donors emphasize a strategic focus to their giving, the central importance of making an impact and stories about being taught the values of giving by their parents and grandparents who not only modeled how to give financial resources, but also their time and talents.
Sharna Goldseker: Before we dive in, can you tell readers how you first got involved in philanthropy?
Ashley Blanchard: I became involved in the family foundation established by my great-grandfather when I was in my late teens. It was a time of significant transition at the foundation: the passing of my grandmother, the family matriarch; a significant increase in assets; and the coming of age – and interest – of my generation. My siblings and I were given a literal seat at the board table as my father and his siblings thought about the foundation’s future. At that time, we made a few critical decisions that set the course for the foundation. First, we decided that we wanted to narrow our focus from the scattershot, trustee-directed approach the foundation had been using. We recognized that while we were not a big foundation, we could have a greater impact if we were strategically focused. Second, we decided that we would focus on something that was collectively important to us all – the increasing economic divide in our country. Third, we recognized that we would need some professional staff to help us achieve our goals.
Perhaps because my generation had not yet established connections to nonprofit organizations or issues that were driving the older generation’s giving, we were more inclined to take a strategic approach and asked: What are important issues where we can make a meaningful difference, and how will we measure success? Where are there gaps we can fill? What are the areas that others won’t touch because they are too messy or controversial? I think it also helped that, as we moved further from the donor who originated the wealth, we felt less ownership of the assets and were more willing to take risks to make an impact.
Emily Davis: I grew up in a family where philanthropy was a central value to everyday life. Beginning with giving of time, my sister and I were stuffing goodie bags for fundraising events and licking envelopes for direct mail campaigns. It was a great introduction to the nonprofit business world and how skills of all kinds can make an impact. As my parents’ sophistication and experiences with philanthropy grew, so did mine. There were intentional conversations about giving back, and simply hearing passing comments between my parents about giving helped inform me that philanthropy is both incredibly important and something to be thoughtful and strategic about. To me, it has never been about “charity,” but about investment in community and causes.
Jason Franklin: I was studying nonprofit management in graduate school and received an unexpected phone call from my grandfather’s secretary. She reminded me that he had just turned 80 years old and shared that this had made him pause and think about getting family involved in “his affairs.” He had decided to invite my father’s generation and mine to get involved with his family foundation. She asked if I was interested, and my response was, “Yes, but what family foundation?” At 22 years old, I had never heard about it.
SG: What experiences or influences have shaped your values around wealth?
JF: I have experienced both significant wealth and times of financial scarcity in my life, which has driven home an appreciation for the resources I do have and the vast inequalities that exist in our society. My parents were always powerful role models for the importance of giving and volunteering, and I heard the “to whom much is given, much is expected” lesson many times.
AB: Our family’s wealth also changed during my lifetime. I grew up with a mother from a working-class family and a father from an upper-middle-class one, but our family’s wealth increased pretty significantly during my childhood. This meant that I grew up with some mixed, evolving messages about wealth – how much we had, what it meant and how it should be used. Even within my own family, there are fairly significant differences with, and values surrounding, wealth. But a consistent value that my parents instilled, like Jason’s and Emily’s, was the importance of getting involved.
ED: No matter what the numbers were in the bank account, my parents ensured that my sister and I would grow up with middle-class values, and we gave back from an early age. We had access to everything we could ever need, and a sense of entitlement would never be tolerated. We were aware of the gifts hard work bestowed on our family and did not take it for granted.
The conversations, experiences and day-to-day reinforcement of values my parents instilled in me motivated my personal activism for causes. I remember volunteering at the domestic violence shelter early on and later developed my career in the nonprofit sector because I was driven to make an impact and had the financial freedom to do so. I learned on the job, served on committees and boards, attended professional development trainings, canvassed, continued to stuff envelopes – anything I could to move the needle. It never seemed like a career to me; it was what I was raised to do, and I loved it.
SG: How have your values extended to your philanthropy, and how do they align with those of family members with whom you conduct your giving?
JF: My philanthropy is guided by a central commitment to advancing racial, social, economic and environmental justice. I leverage my giving by organizing other donors and using my financial resources to work for a more just and sustainable future. While my family members have been and continue to be critical inspirations and supports in my life, I have channeled my philanthropy and energy into far more political and progressive causes than those that they engage in overall.
AB: When it comes to our family foundation, we are all aligned in our commitment to our social justice values and our mission of supporting low-income families to create a more just and fair society. What unites us as a family board is seeing the impact we can have when we take bold actions and support grassroots organizations pushing for change. We built this together, we are learning together, and we are leading together. It is an incredibly powerful experience for a family to have together.
My personal giving aligns closely with the foundation’s, largely because I was so deeply involved in its development while becoming philanthropically involved myself. I have learned so much from the various professionals, grantees and peers that I have worked with over the years, and it has shaped how I think about my own giving – both my approach and philosophy, as well as the programmatic areas that I support. And while the issues my family members individually support may not necessarily overlap with the foundation, they have similarly been influenced in their approach to giving by the lessons learned at the foundation.
ED: I feel my philanthropic values are very “next gen.” I am focused on impact and likely to support operations because I know that other philanthropists do not understand that “overhead” is essential to healthy, sustainable organizations. I am also a perfect combination of my parents and look very much at the nonprofit business model – broadly and specifically. I look for a mix of connecting with my passions, a sense of urgency or need, and calculated risk when I am contributing. I love innovative approaches to funding and programming.
I also “try before I buy,” meaning I like to get involved with an organization on the committee or volunteer level before investing in the mission. When I do invest, it is at higher levels of funding or time, such as board service. I take the governance role seriously, informed by my experiences as a consultant in nonprofit board governance.
SG: What advice would you share with a new donor or someone just beginning her path into philanthropy?
AB: While it is undeniably an incredible privilege to be in a position to give, next gen donors are often uncomfortable with the power imbued with their position, and particularly uncomfortable with the ambiguity inherent in philanthropy. Why say yes to one organization and no to another? Why focus on one issue and not another? I think it is the obligation of good philanthropists to develop some clarity to guide their giving – for both their own sake and that of the field they want to support. There will be difficult choices, and we must be prepared to navigate them because there are few right answers or silver bullets in philanthropy.
There are plenty of opportunities to do good, though, and the best way to learn about them is to jump in and start giving. I have seen a lot of “analysis paralysis” in this field, and I think the best way to learn about philanthropy is to start making grants, see what works and why, and identify what resonates for you personally. I would encourage donors to spend time talking to the organizational leaders who they support. They are an incredible source of knowledge, and interacting with them allows you to see first-hand the change you are contributing to.
JF: I think most of us learn best by doing. As long as you do some basic due diligence, it is rare that a gift is wasted. It may not be the most powerful, innovative or critical gift ever, but it will be put to good use, and in doing so, we learn from the experience. I would also suggest that any new giver find some peers – connect with a community foundation, get involved in a giving circle or join a donor network. For me, that translates to deep involvement with the Proteus Fund and Grand Rapids Community Foundation, ongoing learning as part of the High Impact Documentary Funding Circle and finding continued inspiration from other members of the Solidaire Network and Threshold Foundation. Lastly, I think it is important to take risks and leave room to say yes to the impulse to be generous – give yourself permission to make the uncertain gift, to give bigger than feels comfortable and/or to say yes in the moment to a compelling need. Pushing our edges helps us understand what giving practices fit our personalities and priorities over the long term.
ED: I recently opened a donor-advised fund with The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, which has been a dream of mine, and I look forward to exploring that new chapter of philanthropy. My parents wanted us to find our own way in philanthropy rather than impose one way down the path, and I truly respect and admire this approach. I love the independence and understand the benefits and complications of multigenerational family philanthropy. Each generation passes on its knowledge, and hopefully, the next generation improves and expands on the practices in its own way.
My parents started engaging me and my sister in philanthropy by giving us $100 each year to donate. I encourage new donors to start small. You do not have to be a $1 million donor to be a philanthropist. Learn your values, motivations and passions by working with people who have distinct knowledge in philanthropy and the nonprofit business. Join a local peer group for next gen donors. Think about how it feels to invest in organizations making an impact.
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