Has The Generation Gap in Family Philanthropy Closed?

Any of us who help facilitate family retreats and board meetings know that sensitivity to what different members bring to the table is essential. Words, experiences, and expectations can mean such different things to those sitting around the table. And, let’s face it, in families, those differences can be quite personal.

We often find ourselves in the role of “translator”, educator, and even peacemaker as well as facilitator in such settings. Often simply demonstrating that the differing perspectives are in fact quite generic issues which underlie all philanthropic decisions can assuage and de-fuse. My colleagues and I may utilize different methods to get there, but the goals are the same: good decision-making, amicable family interactions, shared vision, common legacy.

Not that many years ago, it was almost de rigueur to have to interpret profound cultural changes which defined and informed the attitudes of younger and older members of a family. Older members believed in loyalty to established organizations, long-term commitments, the value of intermediaries, inter alia. Younger folk believed in more direct and transitory involvements, the need to know that philanthropic gifts are going directly to the causes they believe in, the ability to network and make their own informed decisions. Ironically, the underlying values between generations may be quite aligned, but how they manifest their philanthropic choices may be profoundly different.

Ten and even five years ago, it was rare indeed when there wasn’t an a-ha moment when all of this was explained. A retreat or meeting which didn’t structure time for these insights was a lost opportunity. Explaining and translating had results: opinions may or may not have been changed but attitudes almost always did.

Today, however, it is less necessary. Not only do we find that many, if not most, families have worked through their differing world views, but more crucially, it is quite common to find that the generation divide simply isn’t there. What has changed? One thing for sure: As the baby boomers become the senior members of their families, they often find themselves more aligned with the younger generations than the elder. Most came of age post-Watergate [or – pick your historic disillusioning moment], with less assumed conviction that larger institutions will have the best interests of individuals or society at large. [Need I give contemporaneous examples?] Many lived through the 60?s and were forever influenced by its cultural optimism and political pessimism. When younger cohorts question the structures, efficiencies, outcomes, and impact of traditional philanthropic entities, these Boomers get it – even when it isn’t exactly the way they might approach their own philanthropic commitments.

It is also true that the philanthropy environment itself has changed. Major foundations and philanthropists have publicly committed themselves to some form of spend-down. The sector itself is a part of the public debate on budgets, taxes, and the communal weal. Major articles about philanthropy, sometimes laudatory, sometimes scandalous, are everywhere. Social networking has become prevalent across generations. Philanthropy networks have proliferated – for better or worse. And every wealth management firm has publicized its philanthropy advisory “expertise.”

All of these changes have led to significant changes in the character of many family retreats and meetings. They may or may not fully understand what they are demanding, but metrics, accountability, impact, alternative investments are terms which arise with surprising frequency. The conversations, even if not the ultimate decisions, start from a very different place than they did a decade ago.

Now, we all know that inter-generational and intra-family dynamics will always provide an interesting, ofttimes challenging, backdrop to any family meeting. Those complex relationships transcend questions of philanthropy. There is little likelihood that experts in family systems will soon be at a loss for business. And indeed, we all know that long-term unresolved family tensions can never be solved through philanthropy.

But what does seem to have changed is the inter-generational philanthropy divide. It hasn’t disappeared, of course, but it is a gap so narrowed that it is no longer the predictable center in family philanthropy discussions.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.