At the turn of the twentieth century, great industrialists of the Gilded Age, men such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman and Julius Rosenwald, began in earnest to turn their attention to philanthropy. Controlling vast personal fortunes that grew larger by the day and ever-mindful of the social disruptions and widening income inequality that had come to characterize America, they began, in the words of historian Robert Bremner, "to found institutions capable of distributing private wealth with greater intelligence and vision than [they] themselves could hope to possess."
Institutions like the Carnegie Institute and Carnegie Corporation of New York, the General Education Board and Rockefeller Foundation, MIT and the Eastman School of Music, the Rosenwald Fund and Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry helped establish the template for organized philanthropy as we know it and, in the words of TIME magazine founder Henry Luce, helped make the twentieth century "the American century."
Today, a new economic revolution is roiling the planet, disrupting old ways of thinking and doing and contributing to levels of income inequality not seen since the 1920s. At the same time, a new generation of philanthropists, inspired by the example of Carnegie, Rockefeller and others, are leveraging their wealth, networks, and know-how to address seemingly intractable and urgent challenges.
Paul Connolly has had a ringside seat on the changing philanthropic landscape for almost twenty years – first as an officer and director at consulting firm TCC Group, where he oversaw the firm's capacity-building and nonprofit and philanthropy practices, and today as director of philanthropic advisory services at Bessemer Trust, a privately held wealth management and investment advisory firm. Through his writing (Navigating the Organizational Lifecycle: A Capacity-Building Guide for Nonprofit Leaders) and frequent thought pieces in sector-focused publications, presentations at the Council on Foundations' annual convenings and other national conferences, and travels as a trainer and facilitator, he has had his finger on the pulse of the growing and increasingly dynamic philanthropic sector in the U.S. and has helped shape its evolution.
PND caught up with Connolly earlier this month and asked him, among other things, about foundations' ability to move the needle on deeply entrenched social problems, the difficulty of measuring impact, and the generational dynamic in philanthropy.
Philanthropy News Digest: You joined Bessemer Trust last year after more than sixteen years at the consulting firm TCC Group, where you served in a variety of roles and established yourself as a social sector thought leader. Why the change?
Paul Connolly: While at TCC Group, I had the chance to work with many talented colleagues and remarkable clients who were deeply committed to the greater social good. The firm tripled in size while I was there, and I had the opportunity to help steer that growth and provide strategy, capacity building, and evaluation assistance to a burgeoning and stimulating mix of nonprofits, philanthropies, and corporate community involvement programs.
When Bessemer Trust approached me about this job, I felt ready for a new challenge, and it seemed like an excellent setting to positively influence social impact in a different way. In my new position, I am privileged to guide individual philanthropists as well as established foundations. And because we are in the midst of what some are calling a "golden age of philanthropy" – more foundations are being formed, major gifts are getting bigger, and the pace of the massive intergenerational wealth transfer is accelerating – Bessemer is a great place to make a meaningful difference. Plus, it's a growing firm with a stellar reputation that values the philanthropic advising function. So it seemed like the right job at the right place at the right time.
PND: Bessemer, which was established as a family office in 1907 by Henry Phipps, a co-founder of Carnegie Steel, today serves over twenty-two hundred families with more than $97 billion in assets. Do all those families include philanthropy in their wealth-management strategies?
PC: Virtually all our clients incorporate philanthropy into their wealth-management strategies in some way. The purpose, scope, timing, and form of their giving vary widely, depending on the client's financial resources, motivations, values, and family and business context. Some clients are active in charitable giving during their lifetimes, others prefer to endow a foundation or designate bequests as part of their estate planning, and many practice a combination of the two. In the same vein, certain individuals prefer recognition for their donations, while others prefer to remain anonymous. So, they employ different vehicles for giving to help them achieve their particular goals.
Bessemer has about $4.4 billion in assets under supervision associated with five hundred and fifteen family and independent foundations, endowments, and trusts that collectively award more than $220 million in grants annually. In addition, many of our larger clients have professionally staffed foundations that are not directly connected to our firm. Our clients also contribute extensively both through individual gifts and, increasingly, donor-advised funds, which are managed by Bessemer Trust, community foundations, or other entities.
PND: You mentioned a few of the different vehicles available for charitable giving. Is there a dollar threshold for which Bessemer recommends starting a foundation instead of contributing to a donor-advised fund?
PC: Due to the greater administrative costs incurred by foundations, we usually suggest a starting size of at least $1 million if the client intends to continue adding funds in the future. An ideal target for establishing a private foundation is somewhere between $5 million and $10 million.
PND: What do you tell clients who may be interested in giving not only money but their time?
PC: We are definitely seeing more and more clients who want to donate their time as well as their funds to nonprofits. Some are younger donors who grew up volunteering and want to continue providing hands-on support. Others are successful executives who are retiring, want to start a new career chapter devoted to civic engagement, and have lots of energy and wisdom to offer. A case in point is a client who sold her human resources company and is now devoting her time to providing pro bono assistance to a few nonprofits that are dedicated to helping veterans enhance their employment skills and secure stable jobs. As you might imagine, her industry knowledge and connections have proven extremely valuable to those organizations.
The key is to help clients clarify their goals and get them thinking about how they can most effectively give, and then help them find the right nonprofit match. Some clients derive the most satisfaction by providing direct voluntary service, such as preparing food in a soup kitchen or tutoring a student who is struggling in school. Others may want to contribute their expertise, leadership ability, and network access by serving on a nonprofit committee or board.
We also realize that when a prospective donor wants to provide pro bono assistance, the nonprofit benefiting from that assistance usually wants to cultivate the relationship so that over time the donor will provide financial support as well. With that in mind, we counsel our clients to clarify expectations around their volunteer roles, responsibilities, and time commitments, as well as the amount of money they might be expected to "give" or "get" to support the nonprofit financially.
PND: How, if at all, do generational dynamics affect your conversations with clients?
PC: Bessemer Trust is more than a hundred years old, and we work with multiple generations of families. Much of our work is facilitating discussion and decision-making among family members about their shared values and interests, as well as ways to engage future generations in philanthropy.
That said, we have seen certain shifts in families' approach to philanthropy. Some younger donors have a more engaged style, are skilled at leveraging their networks, and are more willing to take risks. They also may be more interested in causes like the environment, advocacy, and animal welfare. Recent research by 21/64 and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy has documented these generational changes in a compelling way.
In some cases, we've been able to help different generations discover common ground for their philanthropic interests, which can be a unifying force. We're currently facilitating such a dialogue with a family where the parents want to more actively engage their three adult children in the family foundation. We're guiding them to focus on areas of shared interest, such as their cultural and ethnic heritage and funding research for a disease that has affected family members personally.