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#352 A Perennial Question for Family Philanthropy: How and When to Engage Next-Gens

October 8th, 2019

Richard Marker

It is said that if one hears something once, it is an anecdote; if twice, it is coincidence; if thrice, it is evidence. Whether or not that evidence is convincing to researchers or evaluators, three identical conversations within a two-day period does suggest that there is something to talk about.

Last week, I attended the annual Exponent Philanthropy conference. I have lost track of how many of these I have attended – going back to the early years under its prior name Association of Small Foundations – but I can attest that it is always one of the best conferences for funders in which I participate. This year my role was strictly as a participating member so the conversations I am reporting were all serendipitous around dining tables [although, it is only fair to say that those with whom I spoke were aware of my expertise in the family philanthropy area] .

The questions were remarkably aligned: when and how should we engage the next generation in our family philanthropy. It is often a challenge – What is the correct age? How to involve them in decision making? And the like.

Interestingly, the conversations all posited a similar approach. “Let the younger family members research some projects and report back to us.” The arguments were of two sorts: this would be a good educational method and/or it is a way to prove their readiness. When I asked their ages, the next gen folks were all in their 20’s and 30’s. I responded, “so you are giving them homework assignments – but not a vote.” In every other way they are grown-ups, perhaps with careers and families, but in these families they are still given homework assignments and not ready for the grown-up philanthropy table. [“Next Gen” isn’t always age related, by the way. In a few situations in which I have been involved, the “next gen” were in their 60’s and still not given autonomy or a real vote!]

There were a couple of differences in the family situations: in one case, they were concerned that the next gen folks simply didn’t care. Their evidence was that they were not interested in “doing the work” involved. In the other cases, those who spoke to me were concerned that they were sensing some resentment that their offspring were only allowed to propose but not considered full participants in decision making.

When I suggested to each of the family groups that they experiment by giving some discretionary giving authority to their offspring, they all responded as if it was a new idea. This is certainly not a profoundly innovative suggestion; it assumes that folk are much more likely to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility than when they are disenfranchised or implicitly infantilized.

Of course, this approach is not without its challenges: it wouldn’t be a surprise if not every successor agreed with their elders about priorities or style or even values. For those who are the founders, or those who finally got to sit in the decision-seats themselves, these challenges can make them reluctant to let go. Better to stall and hope that, as time goes by, the succession will somehow be pain free. But if families are truly committed to engaging those next generations in their philanthropic commitments, enfranchisement is really the only option. [Yes, I know I am simplifying a whole range of complex family relationships in these few sentences, but the principles are pretty much generic even if their implementation may not be so simple or straightforward.]

The other frequent question has to do with when: If young adults are, generally speaking, old enough, what about teens? Aren’t they used to doing homework? And even be graded for it? Am I really suggesting giving them discretionary privileges over some grantmaking decisions?

Youth philanthropy has become a fast growing subsegment in our field. There are community sponsored teen giving circles and there even courses in high schools where students are given authority over considering and deciding among direct giving proposals. Why not extend that to your family giving as well? The discretionary dollar amount should be smaller, but the conversations and the insights may well prove intriguing, to say the least. After all, we have been reminded this summer that a 16-year-old high school student has had the most eloquent voice in climate change discussions – with more clarity about the existential choices we face than any adult political leader! I suspect that families who want their philanthropy to transition between generations would do well to find their own ways to take their teens seriously.

Now, these comments should not be viewed as the single solution to questions of succession, eligibility, or longevity. As suggested above, every family and every foundation have distinct histories and distinct cultures. And the more people and more generations involved in successor generations the more difficult the enfranchisement process becomes. But sometimes simple proven solutions can make all the difference. For the three families with whom I spoke at Exponent last week, it appears that this single change might well address a growing intergenerational dilemma.

[In reviewing this before publication, it seems appropriate to add this postscript. Our field in in the midst of a robust discussion about the legitimacy of transferring wealth between generations or of the continued exercise of privilege that accompanies it. In other settings and posts I can return to these questions of equity. Nevertheless, the issue of engaging successor generations in family decision-making regarding philanthropy even if there is no formal structure can apply regardless of the depth of one’s pockets. These lessons can apply independent of the larger public policy issues we must certainly continue to examine.]
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