Posts from the ‘Family philanthropy’ Category
November 26th, 2019
It is hard to imagine that anyone in the philanthropy field has not participated in, read about, or been engaged with questions of “equity”. In fact, one would have to be willfully distracted to not be aware of its prevalence over the last couple of years.
Since so much has been written, said, published, and sometimes even implemented, I will take for granted that any reader of this piece does not need a primer. Our genuine concern with underlying systemic issues combined with legitimate concerns with the overt disparity of wealth distribution means that our field has both a mandate and a challenge at the same time. And to the credit of our sector, the discourse has been informed, caring, and purposeful even when there is a wide range of thinking about what all of this means – for us and for public policy.
It is in this context that I would like to comment on a program I attended recently which explicitly was marketed as a “conversation about racial equity.” [Since I don’t have permission of the organization or the speakers to publicly identify them, I will respect anonymity and trust that only a very few readers will know to whom I am referring.]
While advertised as a conversation among trustees, truth be told it was really a series of presentations. That may seem a nitpick but it does mean that I cannot say whether my responses are representative of other funders in the room or not. There is no question that the personal stories of how the presenters, persons of privilege, learned of the depth and reality of racial injustice and inequity were moving and convincing. This sensitivity has clearly influenced their philanthropic giving priorities and even the ethos of the organizations and foundations they head. One can and should applaud their honesty, sincerity, and commitments.
And yet… I kept thinking about the bottom line of how this all plays out. There was only time for one question, and the one question, by a very prominent woman of color [a relevant datum in this context], was the same one I kept thinking about – governance. Who is on the board? Who makes the decisions? What are the implications for family funders who are the source of the money and who have legal control of the money?
As one who has participated in my share of equity related discussions and has observed many more, I was struck by the absence of any reference to some of the mantras that inform our thinking: even if they didn’t use the term “participatory grantmaking” or quote the catch-phrase “nothing about us without us”, I would have welcomed something more than that they were personally awakened, their grantmaking priorities had changed, and even their staffing was more reflective of a racial balance. These things matter and I am not dismissing them.
But in response to the question about governance, the principals on the panel were unequivocal. One said “it is my money and…” Another said, “it is our family foundation and only family can sit on the board.”
This is not a criticism of those forthright and honest answers, but I would have liked a response that showed that they understood the complexity of those answers. Power and privilege are very real. It is naïve to think that there are easy ways to share them or even when or if one should surrender them, but those of us who have that power and privilege need to at least demonstrate that we understand what that means.
The absence of these sensitivities was particularly striking at this event. These are people who really care – in very personal ways, in philanthropic ways, in behavioral ways. They all demonstrated that they knew the difference between tokenism and enfranchisement. They all set a personal standard to which most in the philanthropy field should still aspire. They really do want change and want to model it as well as they know how.
I myself struggle with the line between enfranchisement and empowerment. I don’t know if and when we have a moral and ethical and historic obligation to cede at least some power in the board room, and if so, how far that should go. Especially for family funders, it is a genuine dilemma for which I can’t propose a facile solution.
But, acknowledging that, I still would have liked to see more self-awareness of the governance control dilemma from these thoughtful, caring, and committed funders. If it is that hard even for them to talk about, it is clear how far we have to go, as a field and as a nation, to really redress the deep-seated racial and social inequities that are so endemic to American society.
November 21st, 2019
Yes, we are approaching that time of year again. You know, the one that Hallmark celebrates 24 hours a day, filled with song and mirth and everyone celebrating together despite the inevitable travails, misunderstandings, and missteps. Somehow, by the end, it all works out perfectly. Sure, why not?
I don’t know for sure, but it is possible that Hallmark doesn’t accurately portray your family, or mine. Let’s face it, in reality, most families, even when they celebrate together, have challenges. Sometimes those challenges are simple differences in style or distance. Other times, competing life expectations are difficult or impossible to ignore.
Many families use these holiday occasions for family meetings. For good reason. It may very well be the only time of the year when almost everyone is in the same place at the same time. If it is a family with shared financial responsibilities, the family meetings can be formal, and if the resources warrant, are often accompanied by non-family specialists such as attorneys or wealth advisors. Other times they are less formal, focused on the normal challenges of multi-generational families regarding senior citizen needs, property maintenance, and the like.
I am not a family systems expert, nor an attorney, nor a wealth advisor. But I do know something about family philanthropy [which requires that I also know at least a little something about family systems, law, and money]. It is often around the philanthropy meetings that the issues of expectations, values, life choices, intergenerational or sibling tensions get played out. The reasons are complex but, in general, it is because the philanthropy conversations can be an indirect proxy for all of the inherent issues of family dynamics. To take one of many possible examples: It may be overtly confrontational to accuse a sibling of being ego-driven and using family resources for personal social gain. It is a lot safer to allude to those things when that sibling insists on having his or her name prominently featured by a charitable entity and to address the implications for the rest of the family. Or for another: it may be awkward to accuse the founding generation of heavy-handed control when they are also the ones who have made your lifestyle possible. But it might be possible to get to that issue of control, circuitously, when that same founder insists that his or her charitable commitments must be endorsed by the grandchildren, even if reluctantly. It is a difficult discussion to be sure, but, when done well, that discussion can be about priorities rather than personality.
That these can be difficult meetings should not mean that they should be avoided. Rather it means that they often can benefit by being carefully planned or even facilitated by someone who understands the full picture. If structured well, with a full empowerment of all at the table, these can lead to a renewed family motivation, unity, and purpose. That does not mean unanimity of style, values, priorities; only that the process can be fulfilling in underscoring that this is a family choosing to honor its heritage, its possibilities, and its potential. There are proven methods to get there, and when done well, can leave a family much more gratified than when they start.
For more than a quarter century, I have had the pleasure of teaching and advising literally several thousands of funders of all sorts. Most of them are family funders. Their starting point when they come to me, or to any of us who is in this sector, is often “giving money away is harder than we thought it would be.”
There are times when deep underlying unresolved family issues are never far from the surface. I have seen late-in-life decisions by founders to create a family foundation in the hope that contentious offspring will find a way to resolve those hostilities with a common legacy and responsibility. Sadly, philanthropy can never magically resolve these kinds of long-simmering, never-resolved family issues – at least on its own.
But for families with a more under-control set of issues, philanthropy can often enhance a family’s ability to appreciate one another and learn to make decisions together. They can lead to shared aspirations for successor generations and for a determination of how their noblesse oblige might be manifest in different places and in different ways.
Where might all of this play out? For many, at the annual family meeting. Since the decisions and feelings that will emanate from this meeting will last far beyond the aroma of even the most delicious holiday leftovers, it is worth putting time and resources into making it a productive and fulfilling experience for all.
October 8th, 2019
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.]
September 2nd, 2019
This post from 2009 still seems to ring true despite all of the attention given to best family foundation practice over the last 10 years.
In my work with family foundations, there are few matters that arise as frequently as the questions of succession. “Who”, “when”, and “if” come up all the time. Sometimes raised by the founder, more often raised by next generations, the all too frequent absence of clarity can be an open or barely hidden source of contention, resentment, and puzzlement which often gets in the way of good and open decision making, and as often taints the well-deserved family legacy of giving.
In the current philanthropy environment, it is crucial to return to core matters such as this. All too often, in the face of books and press which challenge the larger conceptual issues of philanthropy, especially given the economic and political crunch of these times, people are reluctant to raise questions like this. They may feel that their energies should be spent making sure that their philanthropy is effective, or high impact, or transformative, or cutting edge. All of that is valid, but if there is internal disarray or disappointment, it will be hard to get to those other issues in a way that is reinforcing to the family.
No single article can address all of this in depth but from my experience there are a number of issues and bits of advice which can prove helpful.
August 1st, 2017
Some of you may remember the song of that title, and its refrain, from the 80’s. [Professor Google tells me that there have been numerous subsequent recordings so some readers may recall later versions.] In it, a couple faces a key moment in their relationship with the choice that will determine their future together.
I was reminded of that title when listening to a panel at last week’s Family Office Forum in Newport discussing behavior challenges within their own families, and the choices they all made.
The convener of the panel invited three speakers from very different families all of whom had confronted pivotally challenging decisions in their family businesses.
Any of us in this or a related field is well familiar with the dilemma. Some may be family therapists, others family business experts and wealth managers, still others are trust and estate lawyers, and some, like me, family philanthropy advisors. Beneath every transitional moment is the underlying question: “should we stay [together as a family] or should we go [our separate ways]?” Some, but by no means all, of these discussions are filled with distrust or accusation or long histories of dysfunction. But even those families with amicable problem-solving skills ask the question, especially when deciding what to do about subsequent generations and family growth and dispersion.
It need not be said that families are complex and relationships, between and within generations, reflect that complexity. Every decision that has to be made is loaded because every one is personal. [In my work, I try very hard to show that every philanthropy issue that some members of a family are convinced reflect character flaws of other family members is in fact a generic one that has a legitimate philanthropic basis. Doing so doesn’t dissipate years of enmity, but it does allow more reasoned decision making about where to put philanthropic dollars.
The challenge, though, is what happens when that decision-making process stalls, or descends into the morass of unresolved family feelings. Outsiders such as we can often wonder why a founder – or, often, his/her attorney – set up such a self-defeating governance or power structure. But, alas, we too often are brought in long after the foundational structure was established, and we have to help make it work. Or not.
Sometimes the choice is quite stark and the question must be asked: Do you want to stay together or go your separate ways? Asked that directly, many families get themselves together, take deep breaths, and affirm their legacy with a commitment to make it work if at all possible. When a family chooses to accept their mutual decision to remain together, often their hard -held and uncompromising positions dissipate, or at least soften. Many families are pleasantly surprised how much they really do care, how cherished their family legacy is, and how committed they are to future generations.
At such times, they are open to considering different decision-making models, broader enfranchisement, modified structures so that they can achieve, as close as possible, a win-win solution. Not everyone is thrilled, of course, because it usually means that someone or some-ones have to yield some power and give up having controlling claim on the family wealth or philanthropy. But they learn to accept it because they have chosen to stay.
Sometimes the opposite is true. When the existential question is asked directly, it becomes evident that all members of the family feel that it is time to split. Indeed, it can be liberating. They can finally make their own financial decisions, or family engagement decisions, or philanthropy decisions – without having to argue for them or justify them to other branches. It can even serve to reduce tensions and enhance relationships. [One philanthropist I met was proud that he had obviated the necessity to break his foundation up: each of his three offspring had discretionary decision making over 1/3 of the foundation. I am not sure what was gained by that other than face saving.]
The real challenge is when the family legacy is built on a long history of dysfunction or jealousy or favoritism or any number of other causes of unhappiness. [The above-mentioned panel even added a case of illegality.] There may be financial entanglements that make a split more complicated and painful than suffering through their current unhappiness. There may be a public face of the foundation in their community that the family members are unwilling to dishonor. There may be legal requirements that mandate that a foundation must stay together. There may be disagreements about what the right answer to the existential question should be and they cannot even come to a consensus on that. What then?
The short answer: that is when those of us who provide services to families really earn our fees.
The longer answer: here are a number of very practical suggestions about how to make the philanthropy questions a little more manageable, and when appropriate, make the family philanthropy work better. I will leave the financial and family systems questions to other colleagues who have more expertise in those areas.
1. Every member of the family foundation board should have a limited discretionary budget. While not everyone in our field concurs, my experience is that discretionary giving serves to remove private interests from the group decision making docket and provides an incentive to take the family foundation seriously. [Some families extend that privilege to all eligible family members, even those not currently on the foundation board.] This typically works only if the total amount of discretionary giving does not exceed 10-15% of total giving.
2. While there is a place for mission/vision statements in a foundation’s planning process, in families it is often more constructive to have the family commit to a family history, or develop an articulation of values for generations not yet at the table or not yet born. Focusing on what they want their own legacy to be beyond current decision making can create a common purpose that transcends all of the other differences. In the case of one family with which I worked, when the third generation told the spatting second generation that they valued the foundation because it brought them all together every year, the second generation refocused their energy to guarantee those annual all-inclusive gatherings and the on-boarding of that generation. It was a lot more gratifying than the dispiriting disagreements that were characterizing their meetings until then.
3. From the beginning, make sure that professional advisors such as trust and estate lawyers and wealth managers understand that they need to set up structures that work beyond the founder. It is tricky because the founder is their client and there are legal and professional obligations to her/him. But what is left after the founder’s passing is a family. Wills and trusts that don’t empower and recognize that family as an entity that needs to function are all too often counterproductive. There are legitimate desiderata that a founder may have but there are also limits in controlling from the grave. Many of us have had to spend too much time working around structures that simply handcuffed, disempowered, or didn’t adequately anticipate the realities of subsequent generations.
One very frequent, and easy, example might be a founder’s long-time commitment to a particular organization. By requiring that the foundation or donor advised fund give a substantial portion of its annual budget to that organization does not engage subsequent generations very effectively. Why even bother to meet if there are no decisions to make? If a funder is truly committed to an organization, provide an endowment independent of the foundation and let the DAF family advisory group or Foundation be empowered to make its own decisions. [Donor intent should be general enough that it can inform decision making but not overly restrict it.]
4. Recognize that not every philanthropy decision need be a precedent for future giving, and that there are valuable learning curves. Especially in the early years, don’t worry too much about making funding decisions that you come to regret and avoid making big bets too early. Learning from experience may well obviate unnecessary tensions at the grants table.
5. As mentioned above, in families, everything is personal, but not every disagreement reflects a personality flaw. In the overwhelming majority of cases, philanthropy disagreements fall within the generic issues that every funder addresses. Disagreements about risk tolerance or recognition or how involved a funder should or shouldn’t be with a grantee are only some of the valid – and generic – conversations that help fine tune all giving strategies.
6. Philanthropy does not and cannot solve unresolved family issues. I have been asked on several occasions to help families implement a foundation that a parent insisted upon with the aspiration that it would get the family to get along. As suggested above, philanthropy can indeed be a vehicle to give a common focus to family resources, but very rarely does a late-in-life foundation solve years of alienation.
7. If the decision, ultimately, is that nothing seems to work, accept that a division is may not ultimately be a failure but an opportunity for different branches of the family to achieve gratification in their giving, expand their philanthropic footprint, and engage in bettering the world in different ways.
And, who know, perhaps future generations will look at each other and say, “let’s get together.” Hey, it happens!
February 8th, 2015
We welcome guest blog posts as long as they are content appropriate and are not implicit advertisements for products or services.
reprinted from Phlanthropists.org with permission of Grassroots.org
Philanthropy is such a noble act and it is such great ideas to have your kids share your passion with you. Generosity and compassion are charitable values that we would want our children to acquire, but in this fast-paced and social-media driven world, how can we instill these to them?
Here are five steps on how to teach philanthropy to your kids:
1. Talk it out with your partner. A study had been conducted in 2009 and it found out that most couples are seeing eye-to-eye regarding charitable giving, but it would still be good if you and your spouse are on the same page when it comes to this issue. Talk about the nonprofit’s goals and missions and make sure it does not violate any of your own beliefs.
2. Right from the beginning, talk to your kids about your charitable passions, including your favorite causes, as well as what you do to show your support. Once they see you all enthusiastic about it, they would just follow suit. It should not surprise you anymore if they ask starting questions or offering help.
3. Make them a part of the decision-making. Encourage your kids to take part in the decision-making process. Let them adopt their own causes and support the medium they will use to have their advocacies known.
4. Volunteer as a family. Not only is volunteering a good way to improve your kids’ self-esteem, but it is also a great opportunity to acquire new skills, share experiences, spend quality time together, establish traditions.
5. Imbibe financial literacy. As you teach your kids philanthropic values, you also get to teach them about the value of money. You have to teach them how to manage their savings, on top of establishing clear goals on how the money should be spent.
These are just few of the many ideas out there on how to teach philanthropy to your kids. Out of this experience, your kids would learn how it feels to make a difference in the world and contribute to its betterment.
June 18th, 2014
It is always gratifying when one of these posts inspires reactions, challenges, and rebuttals. The post of several weeks ago on innovation funding seems to be one of those. This follow up piece addresses some of the reactions I have received.
Evidence based grantmaking: Some have read my earlier piece as a wholesale dismissal of the value of evidence-based grantmaking. That is not what I meant to imply. There are, indeed, many cases where there is significant documentation that one intervention is more effective than others. In addition, many funders and foundations don’t have the internal resources to do independent research or assessment of complex approaches. They are “mission aligned” with a much larger foundation which has done that work. Why not follow their lead? This can be a very efficient funding approach and can have a legitimate place in a grantmaking portfolio.
Moreover, even though not every evidence-based approach would withstand a longitudinal review, it does not mean that every unproven or untested program or intervention is equally worth funding. It does not exempt a grantee organization from an articulation of what success should look like, what an evaluation could examine, and what they would do if their assumptions prove false. All of us have met organizations – new and not so new – that have tried to dismiss accountability. “We are different” or “we have wonderful anecdotes” or any of a variety of other rebuttals. Those responses are simply not credible. Innovation funding requires openness to uncertainty, high tolerance of failure [see below], and acceptance of early stage indicators rather than clear evidence of success. But innovation funding does not dismiss accountability, knowledge of the field, or acceptance of the legitimacy of the early-stage indicators.
Replication: Another area which only makes sense if there is demonstrated effectiveness is the area commonly referred to as replication. Replication is NOT simply copying something tried in one place and plopping it down somewhere else. That is in itself a recipe for failure. How often have we seen that? But a program, approach, or project which has been tested, and, crucially, there is appropriate documentation about what made it successful, is a good candidate for “replication.” Here is another example where evidence matters.
Finally some words about success and failure. Recently, a lot has been written about failure in our field. It is hard to imagine any funders who are honest with themselves who can look at their portfolio over time and not find some flops. And that is as it should be. After all, virtually all funding is for something that did not yet happen. Nothing in the future is or can be guaranteed.
But failure should never be because a funder got in the way: created undoable conditions, knowingly underfunded, forced an organization to go beyond their reasonable competencies, overlooked organizational weaknesses which needed to be addressed…
I continue to be an unrepentant advocate for the importance of innovation funding. Funding innovation requires a high tolerance of failure. Sometimes a huge tolerance. But that failure should be for the right reasons and not because of funder myopia. And this is where strategy enters: asking the right questions, articulating what change might be possible, being courageous in helping those changes happen, and being responsible in your relationship with those who are implementing those noble efforts. What can be more strategic than that?
April 17th, 2014
There are two predictable comments or questions I hear from almost every potential new client.
The first: “How much money does one have to have to afford you?” is the easy one. That tells me that they have been talking to other philanthropy advisors and firms, many of whom have a business model based on the asset or giving size. In my case, since I don’t accept management or retainer contracts, I only charge on a project basis – what needs to be done, who has to be involved, how much time will it take. It doesn’t matter how much you have, only how much time we think will be called for. And everyone is billed on the same rate basis. I am happy to discuss what all of this means in another context, but that isn’t the subject of this post.
The second comment is: “this is harder than we thought it would be.” It doesn’t matter whether the client is the founder or the 4th generation, whether they are doing it alone or through a foundation, whether they have articulated priorities or are “feel good” funders, whether their asset base is in the $billions or many fewer zeroes, giving money away is never as easy as it looks from the outside, or at the beginning.
When beginning ones philanthropic journey, at least on the funder side, it seems to be an ideal position to be in: one can make a difference, make people happy, and satisfy one’s charitable interests, all at the same time. But…
Who would have imagined that you suddenly have so many friends – all of whom just happen to have a project which needs funding? Or that so many people would be concerned that you can no longer afford to eat. Otherwise, how to explain all of those offers to buy you breakfast, lunch, coffee, drinks…? And it is so thoughtful for folks to offer to distract you from TV, Netflix, or other home based distractions like your family. Surely you want to attend a dinner/concert/show/lecture/parlor meeting/… every evening.
That may indeed be an adjustment, but you learn how to deal with it. That isn’t the real hard part.
The hard part is coming to grips with having to say no to so many people all the time – or deflecting them to avoid doing so. The hard part is recognizing that there really are lots of worthy and worthwhile projects – even within your areas of interest, so many more than you can or are willing to fund. The hard part is accepting that, since you are always funding the future, nothing is guaranteed. The hard part is deciding what will persuade you that a grant or investment has done enough of what it was supposed to do that you feel gratified with the result. The hard part is deciding how involved you should – or shouldn’t – be with organizations you fund. The hard part is realizing that your spouse, kids, parents, siblings may see all of this very differently than you – and may take those differences personally. The hard part is choosing between being a responsible steward of philanthropic funds you or someone else set aside to do good or with being a change agent to do even better. The hard part is that doing all of this, deciding all of this, balancing all of this, caring about all of this takes a lot more time, energy, and commitment than you imagined. The hard part is accepting how much you care.
The amazing part, though, is that there are ways of figuring all of this out, and when you start getting it right, it is worth all the hard work. And indeed, all of that work on behalf of philanthropic involvement does make a difference – because it really matters.
July 31st, 2013
Congratulations to our friends and colleagues at 21/64 and at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy for the recently released and much publicized report on the philanthropy patterns of Millenials and GenX.
Their report does not break new ground, as many in our field have pointed out. Many of us have been articulating our impressions of the emerging philanthropic behaviors of younger generations for several years. However, that many of us intuited what the study demonstrated is largely beside the point. What makes this report important at this time is several-fold.
1. They have produced meaningful, if preliminary, research to prove impressions of significant trends. The philanthropy field, and by extension, the non-profit field, is indeed being rethought, and maybe reinvented. As history has shown us, studies like this are quite useful in accepting that reality.
For example, about 15 years ago, when the radical changes in philanthropic behavior began to be noticed by many in the field, there was instinctive and widely articulated resistance to our “impressions” by established organizations and fundraisers. They argued that what we were seeing was simply a delayed maturation of the population, but eventually young folks would behave like their parents and grandparents. Were they ever wrong! But it took a number of crucial independent studies for this to begin to sink in. [Some still don’t get it.] Only when a series of studies comparing regions of the country, or those of differing religious backgrounds, or those from different ethnic backgrounds, etc. all showed that the generational attitudes and behaviors reflected long-term attitudinal and behavioral changes did the dismissive nature of the established institutions begin to erode. The non-profit world still hasn’t quite caught up with philanthropic attitudes and behaviors, but many are now recognizing that they must.
2. As some have said, it is indeed true that many of us have been saying most of what the study shows. But were people listening? And that is the point. To the credit of the Johnson Center and 21/64, they have caught the attention of our field of funders, and out partners in the field, the non-profit sector. Rarely has a study been more re-tweeted, appeared on more Linked-In group discussions, and had a ready place at every conference near and far. As the expression goes, “if a tree falls in the forest…..” This tree didn’t fall in the forest, but rather in the central squares of the philanthropy world. And people are hearing it.
3. The real question is “are they listening?” And there are numerous audiences of listeners
a. There are family foundation boards where younger folk have been judgmental of the philanthropic styles and choices of their seniors, and the seniors have been equally judgmental of their children/grandchildren. The fact that the study reinforces the altruism and charitable instincts of the Millenials and GenX, and those slightly older goes a long way to open the doors to intra-family understanding.
b. There are non-profits whose long-term existence depends on adjusting to the reality implicit in the report. Some really believe that having a Facebook page or rebranding the same old, same old to have a new contemporary look is going to bring people in; they are surely destined for failure – or at the minimum, irrelevance. Those who recognize that there may be new ways of doing things, as challenging to their own status quo as that might be, are at least in the game. And those which are structured around problem-solving more than institution-building are likely to have the best chance to make a difference.
c. But let’s be clear about the depth of the challenges when reinventing a sector: Transiency is the new black. It is true in the work place; it is true with pop-up or virtual communities; it is all too true with contemporary relationships. And for our purposes, it is true in philanthropic involvement. To fully incorporate the transformational approach of Millenials, and GenX requires nothing less than a rethinking of the funding, management, and longevity of those entities which exist for the public good. Is it possible to re-create that sector based on this kind of transiency? At what human cost? And how do we avoid the pitfall of faddishness in philanthropy? And this is where intergenerational experience, wisdom, creativity, collaboration, and resilience will make all the difference.
I, for one, need not be persuaded by the authenticity of the demand for thinking differently about the nature of organizations and solving social problems. The reinvention of philanthropy rings true for me, which is why I spend much of my time listening to and learning from those who are, shall I say, a different generation. The reason this report matters is that it helps us confront the stark transformation we are in the midst of. It will require more than Millenials and GenXers to make the changes, and to make a difference. But the necessary changes in our sector, and the solutions to all too persistent problems in our world, cannot happen without their leadership.
May 31st, 2013
I never thought of myself as a serial entrepreneur. But a friend in a different field from mine who has known me for almost 30 years thought otherwise. So he invited me to address a graduate seminar on the long list of projects which I either started or was involved in – going back over 40 years.
Frankly, I myself was surprised by the length of the list. Of course it led to some introspection on what happened to them all. Which ones have lasted, and which ones didn’t? And why?
After sharing as much of that history as a 2-hour seminar would allow, one of the students asked a question which startled me. How did I feel about all the failures?
Neither the host professor nor I understood my retrospective as a litany of failures; quite the opposite – he invited me because he viewed it as a list of interesting ventures, some of which were years ahead of the curve or game changes, but the student explained why he thought otherwise: “Look how many of those projects don’t exist any longer.”
Interesting perspective. Thinking about this a couple of months later, I am still intrigued by that student’s response. After all, quite a number of the projects on which I reported do still exist. One has lasted 42 years! But even among those that don’t: one lasted about 15 years; another over 25; another is thriving in a different format, integrated into two larger organizations. These were hardly fleeting romantic fancies but had a reasonable life span. I wouldn’t have thought of them as failures. [I could have given a litany of failed experiments as well, but that wasn’t the assignment.]
Why did the presentation come off that way, at least to some of these graduate students?
The bottom line, it appears, was permanence – or its absence. Permanence means success; impermanence failure. A pretty clear metric.
But is that a reasonable metric? Is it a constructive standard? Do we really believe that all good and productive organizations should exist in perpetuity? Do we really want to argue that an organization that chooses to fold or merge or simply feel that its work is done or that someone else can do it better is a failure? What if they feel that the needs have changed and the mission or approach are no longer the contribution they once were.
And while not the subject of this posting, what about the transformative impact of an idea or methodology which transcends its founding entity?
This is a philanthropy blog, and it may be instructive to remember that this was not a philanthropy seminar. I wonder if the reactions would have been the same had it been one for funders. After all, in our field, so many funders talk the talk of impact, time limits for organizations, the arguable validity of endowments – at least as we consider our grants and financial involvement with those soliciting our funds. But I wonder how we would view things retrospectively. Would we view a 40-year review of our grants as a success or failure if half, or one-third or one-quarter of our grantees [or the projects we funded] were no longer around? Would we consider that we had done good, prescient, strategic, impactful grantmaking if our look back showed a history of impermanence? I wonder.
As for me, it would be wonderful if the future allows me the opportunity to have a new roster of involvements in innovative projects as the past has, and has at least as many of those kinds of “failures” It gives me new appreciation of the potential of the innovative entrepreneurs who knock on our doors every day. How could I not? After all, without realizing it, I myself have been one.