Expert Q & A: How do learning needs and styles differ across generations, and how can family foundations teach philanthropy to the next generation?

By: Sharna Goldseker, Executive Director at 21/64

From your work across multiple generations in philanthropic organizations, what are you seeing as key learning needs?

Much of the work we’ve been doing at 21/64 since we were established in 2002, coincides with research that shows each generation brings a unique set of values, skills, and experiences to the philanthropic table. The first key learning need is around values clarification, which we believe leads not only to better working relationships among funders but also to more effective philanthropy. Beginning to uncover one’s own values and learn what values motivate others is critical to bridging the generational divide. Often, funders from one generation hear that someone from another generation wants to fund something, which on the face of it seems very different from their funding interests.

With the help of a tool such as the Motivational Values Cards, board members often discover that their underlying values are more aligned than they first appear. This happened recently with a family foundation client of ours where a Traditionalist grandmother (born between 1925-1945) wanted to fund arts institutions and scholarships to individuals to access education while her Baby Boomer children (born between 1946-1964) wanted to support local sustainability organizations and mental health clinics. They reflected on their values and appreciated that each generation was motivated to create “opportunities” for people and build a better and “just” society, even though the way they implemented their values looked different. By learning about the values each held, the conversations they had about potential grantees deepened, illuminating which organizations shared their core values and which did not. While board members eventually brought forward grants in different program areas, they also worked together to articulate a values statement and later a vision statement, in other words, a common bottom line about what they agreed they wanted to achieve through their philanthropic investments. Again, this brought enhanced communication, understanding, and alignment to the family and more potential effectiveness to their grantmaking.

And do they differ across generational lines?

In addition to having distinct skill sets, we also find different generations have distinct learning styles. While Baby Boomers and Traditionalists may have many more years of experience than Generation X and Generation Y/Millennial board members, the latter generations have had unique learning experiences which enable them to bring distinct skill sets to their foundation such as knowledge of other languages, cultural understanding from working or studying abroad, and information technology know-how. So while Generation X and Generation Y board members might benefit from learning from older family members how to evaluate a funding proposal or review a non-profit’s budget, the elders may explore new approaches to an old program area, discover new grantees in other geographic locales, or learn how to use social networking technology to promote their funding initiatives from their children and grandchildren.

Along with Michael Moody from the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, 21/64 conducted research on 21-40 year olds from high-capacity families. In 2017, we published the results in a book, Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing GivingWe found that how next generation donors want to learn is as different as what they want to learn. Next gen donors want to experience philanthropy, be hands-on in their support of organizations, and develop their philanthropic identity in addition to being taught how to fulfill their duty of fiduciary responsibility. So we help foundations and families funding together through other vehicles to build their capacity for communication and active engagement. Reared on interactive technology, next generation family members expect two-way learning. Rather than lecturing, they thrive on access to information that they are then allowed to make sense of through case studies, site visits, dialogue with grantees, and hands-on volunteerism. At a minimum, try providing materials ahead of time that a Gen Xer and Yer can review, research, and explore on their own; then have a conversation with them about the topic, asking what they think of it in addition to offering your own experience and perspective on the subject.

Can people learn to be philanthropic and if so, how do people in the family foundations you work with teach philanthropy to the next generation?

In our study, we discovered that nearly 95% of the donors had been involved in volunteerism and family giving under the age of 21. So for starters, engaging children and grandchildren at a young age is nearly a guaranteed way of having them perceive themselves as a donor when they are adults. Many next generation family members recall a “learning by watching” model where they see their parents volunteer, attend board meetings, and be absent from the home for the important work they’re doing in the community. However, those next generation members who then become active funders go on to explain that they don’t just witness their parents’ activities but have an opportunity to discuss them, perhaps over the dinner table, and sometimes even with grantees or funding partners who have been invited as guests. The question then emerges, how to you keep them engaged? We were surprised in our research to find that while many next gen donors expect to be involved in family philanthropy in the future, most don’t feel involved in the present. While parents perceive their adult children as busy with their own young families and careers, they often miss the opportunity to involve adult children who would like to be participating in the family philanthropy. Sometimes teaching the next generation about philanthropy is as simple as inviting them to participate.

Content Partner: 21/64

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Publication/Event Date:

2019 -- updated from original post in 2014

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Sharna Goldseker



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