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[Review] 'Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving'

November 21, 2017

A new generation of donors is expected to inherit an estimated $59 trillion dollars by 2061 and to allocate almost half that sum to charitable causes. In addition to this unprecedented transfer of wealth, there are also a growing number of next-generation donors who have earned their own fortunes at a relatively young age and are currently, or will soon be, engaged in philanthropy in a significant way.  

Gen-impact-book-1In Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving, authors Sharna Goldseker and Michael Moody set out to illuminate the "collective mindset" of this emerging cohort of Gen X and millennial philanthropists, who, as a result of almost unprecedented wealth creation and concentration, are ushering in a "golden age of giving" marked not only by significantly more financial resources available for charitable causes than in the past but by dramatic shifts in the traditional norms of philanthropy. These shifts are the impetus for Goldseker and Moody's book; through interviews and surveys with hundreds of younger philanthropists, as well as first-person accounts from thirteen next-gen donors, they aim to help the social sector understand who these next-generation donors are, how they're giving, and how they're likely to approach change-making efforts in the years to come.  

The authors call these next-gen donors "Generation Impact" because they're hyper-focused on seeing the needle actually move with respect to the various issues they are passionate about. Many want to understand an organization's theory of change; others are eager to go on site visits to see the impact created by their support, while still others want to review hard data that shows the success (or lack thereof) of a program or organization. This focus on results also goes hand-in-hand with a desire to not just fund organizations, but to invest their own time and talent in causes that are important to them. That can take many forms, from volunteering with an organization before becoming engaged as a donor, to connecting with the beneficiaries of a program that they're thinking about funding, to lending their skills and expertise to organizations in addition to (or instead of) writing a check. "Experiencing it with your own hands and eyes is a must," one donor tells Goldseker and Moody.  

Many of these next-gen donors also are beginning their engagement with philanthropy at a relatively young age and will continue giving throughout their lives; as a result, they strive to bring their full selves to their philanthropic endeavors instead of merely viewing charitable giving as an add-on to their professional and personal lives. As one donor puts it: "Philanthropy is not just something that you do; it is very much a part of who you are."  

And while they continue to give through traditional vehicles like family foundations and donor-advised funds at community foundations, next-gen donors increasingly are turning to less traditional vehicles such as crowdfunding platforms and impact investments, are supporting social enterprises and hybrid organizations that blur the lines between for- and nonprofit, and are often focused on working with others to effect change. "They are hungry," write Goldseker and Moody, "for meaningful connections with peers in similar situations of philanthropic affluence so that they can connect personally, to learn and grow together and be more effective in their giving."

Given all that, it's surprising the authors make a point of mentioning the "paucity of other sources of learning in the philanthropic field" for next-gen donors, a lack that leads them, in their words, to seek out their peers for strategic advice. Many infrastructure groups, in fact, including the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, and the Council on Michigan Foundations, have resources and programs geared to providing next-gen donors with a "roadmap" for their philanthropic journey. Here at Foundation Center, we recently developed YouthGiving.org — a platform designed to connect, inspire, and inform youth grantmaking, enabling younger donors to not only find and connect with peers, but to learn about other next-gen donors' experiences, failures, successes, and collective impact.

More importantly, what do these shifts mean for the social sector? The authors do a great job of taking the themes surfaced by their research and offering practical advice around what those themes are likely to mean for nonprofits, other philanthropists, and next-gen donors themselves. Younger donors may be rethinking the way Americans give, but, as Goldseker and Moody argue, they're also revolutionaries who respect tradition and will continue to support many of the same causes funded by older generations: indeed, next-gen donors "are earnestly and eagerly searching for ways to honor their elders' legacies and adapt their giving to have maximum impact."  

This should be comforting news to nonprofits that worry their donor support will dry up as younger philanthropists become a bigger force in the field. Still, Goldseker and Moody caution that nonprofits hoping to benefit from the intergenerational transfer of wealth will need to adapt and do a better job of showing the impact of their younger donors' gifts. Other key takeaways for nonprofits include the need to focus on developing meaningful relationships with next-gen donors by aligning with their values, providing them with personal experience of the programs they support, and encouraging them to donate their time and professional skills in addition to (or even instead of) financial resources.

Key takeaways for family foundations looking to engage the next generation include the need to ensure that governance structures give real voice to younger family members, to embrace transparency and use generational differences to their advantage, and to provide younger family members with opportunities to connect with, learn from, and collaborate with their peers in philanthropy. The authors also stress that next-gen donors should respect the boundary between being "hands on" and micromanaging or asking for too much from organizations that are looking for help and support. Or, as they put it: "They will need to keep the inherent power divide in mind, to check in with their partners on the other side of the funding table, and, above all, to listen to what people and organizations really need."  

Goldseker and Moody are incredibly optimistic about next-gen donors who are coming into the field and their potential to meaningfully move the needle on many of our most pressing social problems. Indeed, they believe that impact created by next-gen donors will be greater than the impact created by earlier generations of philanthropists — not only because they are likely to have more resources at their disposal, but because they're more entrepreneurial, more focused on concrete results, and more invested in using new tools to produce those results and effect meaningful, lasting change. It's up to nonprofits and other philanthropists, they write, to adapt to and embrace these new attitudes and behaviors. And it's up to next-gen donors to use their significant privilege and resources strategically, while listening respectfully, to maximize their impact.

Erin Nylen-Wysocki is manager of stakeholder engagement at Foundation Center. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.


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