Recognizing that the next generation is truly a diverse group—including many looking for ways to make change—is the first step toward bringing the next generation along for the wonderful, incredible, and challenging ride that we all know philanthropy can be.
(Whereas folks of all ages may consider themselves the “next generation,” in this post we’re referring primarily to millennials—those currently in their 20s and 30s.)
We are both proud to be members of the next generation of our family foundations. As younger members of the philanthropic community, we are continually excited by the opportunity to talk with others about everything from grantmaking to collective impact. Perhaps what is most exciting to us, though, is the opportunity to speak with others about ways to more fully engage the next generation in philanthropy.
Most of the conversations we’ve had around this subject are marked by a sense of enthusiasm, excitement, and desire for growth. But that’s not to say we haven’t faced challenging questions as well, including these:
Isn’t the next generation a selfish generation? How do we engage them?
If you believe that every member of a generation is selfish, it is easy enough to find abundant evidence to support that claim. But if you look for proof of the opposite, there’s plenty of evidence in that camp too. For example, according to a 2012 report by The American Dream Composite Index, individuals ages 24-35 are more likely to participate in crowdfunding efforts than older generations; an Associated Press-GfK poll found that individuals under age 30 are more likely to state that they have a “very important obligation” to volunteer than their older counterparts.
On a more personal level, we can definitively state that the “next gen-ers” we know—our friends, our peers in the Exponent Philanthropy Next Gen Fellows Program, our relatives—are not selfishly motivated. It might be easy to argue that those that we know are the exception to the rule, not the norm, but we don’t think so.
We’d argue that this next generation is no more selfish than previous generations once held the younger generations to be. If we can accept that, we will find immense opportunity to create positive collaboration between all generations, which can result in progressive changes and new thinking in the midst of the traditional ways of philanthropic work.
How can I make my children participate in our foundation?
The short answer: You can’t make them do anything.
The long answer: This set of questions, often asked together, gets the whole premise backwards. Caring doesn’t follow engagement; engagement follows caring.
Per The Boston Globe (October 2015), “Young donors want to be inspired, and they want to be actively involved, whether that means pedaling for a purpose or swinging a hammer.” Although the article referred specifically to individual donors to not-for-profit causes, the same argument could be applied to engaging the next generation in philanthropic efforts.
Instead of asking how we can make the next gen engage, ask different questions: How can this next gen-er find interest in philanthropy? What can they contribute? What can they learn? These are proactive, nonjudgmental, open-minded, and open-ended questions that can and will lead to positive and openhearted next gen engagement.
Take steps to help your next generation care about the work you are doing—whether that is by educating them about a specific issue area you are working to address, bringing them into the community your foundation serves, or inviting them to fully participate in board activities—and engagement will follow.
A path forward
The two questions we addressed—and others like them—stem from one misguided assumption: that “the next generation” is inherently other, different, and often incomprehensible. The “othering” of this group of young people does nothing to promote the engagement, activity, and excitement that are so crucial to success in philanthropic endeavors.
Instead of focusing on what makes us “other,” we invite you to focus on what makes us all the same—and then acknowledge that our differences can lead to exciting, innovative work in philanthropy and beyond.
Kerry McHugh serves as a vice president and program officer at the Helen J. Serini Foundation in Crownsville, MD. She is an alumni of Exponent Philanthropy’s Next Gen Fellow Program and served as faculty for the 2015 Next Gen Fellows Program.
Katherine Palms serves as a trustee of the HP Family Foundation in Grosse Pointe, MI. She is an alumni of Exponent Philanthropy’s Next Gen Fellows Program.