The Coming Philanthropic Revolution

December 12, 2017 Sharna Goldseker

Meet the next generation of big donors—the Gen X and Millennial philanthropists who will be the most significant donors ever and will shape our world in profound ways. As these “next gen donors” step into their philanthropic roles, they not only have unprecedented financial resources, but also big ideas for how to wield their financial power. They want to disrupt the traditional world of charitable giving and they want to do so now, not after they retire to a life of philanthropic leisure.

531321011.jpgLike previous generations of major donors, Gen Xers and Millennials feel a responsibility to give and they want their giving to make a difference on a diverse array of causes. Unlike previous generations, they prioritize impact above all else, and they are willing to revolutionize philanthropy to get better results.

This drive for impact means next gen donors feel they have no choice but to make changes to philanthropic strategy and to take risks that could lead to new results. As one put it, “We need a different MO [modus operandi] here. This one isn’t working.” Next gen donors from philanthropic families are ready to work alongside their parents and grandparents on a multigenerational team, but they, and first-generation donors, will go it alone if they have to. They will even be “unreasonable”—to use Scott Belsky’s word—if having more impact requires that.

Their vision, though, is to be both revolutionary and respectful. They want revolution not for revolution’s sake but for impact’s sake. Next gen donors acknowledge what they have learned from previous generations and want to be good stewards of legacy. They see their philanthropic innovations as honoring what donors in the past have accomplished by taking giving to the next level. They credit parents and grandparents with teaching them positive values around giving and want to instill and inhabit those values seamlessly across all parts of their lives. In fact, this search to find the right balance of the past and future, of respect and revolution, is the central identity challenge facing Generation Impact.

We know next gen donors themselves are eager to launch the revolution now. To us, this means there are big transformations on the immediate horizon, and the pace of change will steadily increase in the next few years, with some areas shifting faster than others.

In the short term, we expect to see many donors launch trial experiments to test out new innovations—like more next gen giving circles and funding collaboratives, new social responsibility screens introduced for foundation endowments, and use of sector-blending giving vehicles by individual donors to maximize their options. Other changes will take much longer, like nonprofits retooling their donor engagement strategies to bring donors more meaningfully into their everyday work and families sharing full decision-making power across generations. But even these complex and long-term changes are starting to happen, as the next gen donor stories in this book have illustrated. Hannah Quimby is starting to fundamentally change funder-grantee relationships in her home state of Maine. Katherine Lorenz has guided her family foundation to become a working multigenerational team.

The pacing of the revolution is one area where we noted a difference between first-generation earners and next generation inheritors. While both groups want to revolutionize philanthropy in similar strategic ways—to be more innovative and hands-on, to give and learn more with peers—they differ in their capacity to implement those changes right away. Earners can implement their ideal philanthropic strategy more rapidly, while inheritors usually face the added complication of working through established family structures. Earners can blaze their own trails, while inheritors often have to protect the trails as well as forge ahead.

All next gen donors, however, face the challenge of actually implementing their revolutionary visions, which will not be easy in a field full of large institutions, diverse stakeholders, and entrenched practices. There is no small amount of trepidation among nonprofits, especially about rapid changes that might negatively affect the people they serve or the crucial social outcomes their mission aspires to achieve. This means the Impact Revolution could take longer than next gen donors would like, which could in turn leave them frustrated. But if their focus is impact and they’re committed to being engaged, we expect they will stick around to see their changes take full effect.

Learn more about more about Generation Impact.

Image Credit: Joakim Leroy/Getty Images

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