The Future Of Philanthropy Is With The Cupcake Bakers

Last week I was sitting in Manhattan with four extraordinary women.  Down the table from me was Jennifer Buffet, President and Co-chair of the NoVo Foundation; Chair and CEO of the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, Catherine B. Reynolds; Josefina Vázquez, Executive Director of the Boston Women’s Fund; and Karen Osborne, President of The Osborne Group.  We were panelists charged with discussing “the changing face of philanthropy” for the Sixteenth Annual Philanthropic Round Table on Women and Philanthropy convened by Miss Hall’s School and faced with an knowledgeable and engaged audience.

Those of us tagged as “experts” charged forth into discussion about the impact of the economic downturn on philanthropists, we called for private funders to consider untraditional partners such as government or business, we challenged the funding community to take more risks and be more transparent about our failures.  We discussed philanthropy’s role in economic development, the effect of violence against women in the developing world, and the personal responsibility inherent in making funding decisions.

And, as those of us who have been witnesses to such panels know, it’s not consensus, but rather a bit of disagreement that makes for memorable panel discussions.  Interesting then, that the memorable moments of this panel were not born out of discussion of gender, money or politics.  No, it was age that started sparks flying – specifically, the difference in philanthropic values and practice between generations.  For, as much conversation on “women philanthropists” as there is among philanthropy geeks such as myself, there is nothing homogenous about either women or philanthropists.  In fact, the greatest differences among North American philanthropists may not be due to gender, but to age.

Much of the research on philanthropy (that is assumed to represent philanthropists broadly) has actually only considered the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and Baby Boomers.  Generation X’ers are minimally represented; Millennials are often not even on the radar screen.  The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University made a significant contribution with their 2010 report showing that, across all five generations and both genders, the percentage of individuals who choose to give is fairly consistent (77 – 89%).

But what do we know about how younger generations differ in philanthropic practice and priorities between generations, especially with so little focus on younger philanthropists?  One of the most illuminating discussions I have heard was from Shannon Farley of Spark, speaking during a recent Arabella Advisors webinar.  She described Millennials as do-ers: entrepreneurial, motivated donors who require choice, are comfortable with capitalism and therefore who see giving as “fee for service”, and who want opportunities for leadership (now!).  Farley’s strategies to engage Millennials should be required listening for the many Boomer parents seeking to involve their Millennial children in their family foundation.  But the concept of philanthropy as “fee for service” – an intellectual decision to buy a charitable outcome – was reprehensible to some in the room, and foreign to many.  What happened to giving because it is “the right thing to do”?  What happened to the “joy of giving”?  This is just one of many generational differences that we need to understand – and embrace – in the philanthropic sector.

So, with this new generation of passionate philanthropists in mind, the most inspiring women in the room were not those of us sitting behind the table as panelists.  Rather, it was the six young women from Miss Hall’s School who were in attendance.  As founders of MAPS (Mira’s Alliance for Philanthropic Sustainability), they are now well known on campus for the cupcakes that they bake and sell to raise money for their group.  They choose to use their earned revenue not to fund field trips or purchases for their school, but to invest in micro loans to women in third world countries.  As high school students, they have a level of global awareness and personal responsibility that many of us are still struggling to develop as adults.  These young women were cognizant of their role as future leaders, and already embracing an identity as donor-activists that we were struggling to articulate as panelists.

For those of us older than 30, it’s our responsibility to understand this passionate, inspired, entrepreneurial generation of millennials, to challenge ourself to re-think the dated methods we have of enaging young people, and to be willing to build access to leadership in the boardroom, in the workplace, and in our communities.  In other words, we need to be willing to share power with the cupcake bakers – or find ourselves left out of the kitchen.