NextGen – A Flawed Concept for our Times?

Let me begin by saying that I really don’t like the term “nextGen.” It typically is simply the latest euphemism for “young leadership” or other ways in which established organizations try to entice those perceived to be too young to be true organizational leaders to develop a connection and commitment. Underlying it is a very patronizing concept. It says: you are not rich enough or not proven enough to really be worth listening to. We aren’t ready to give you real power but we are hoping that some day you will pay your dues sufficiently that we will invite you to the grown-up table.

From an organizational perspective, this seems to make all the sense in the world: most younger people don’t have the means to contribute at a top leadership level, it builds a “bench strength” of volunteers for the time when a space opens up, it allows acculturation into the values and styles of the organization, and builds a tradition of loyalty which should pay future dividends. Every organization knows that the future must include the young[er] folks, so why not cultivate them now? And for some organizations this has been working.

But for too many, this means that superannuated or entrenched leadership simply retains control for an indefinite, perhaps too long, time. It means that the energy, creativity, and innovative thinking of younger people is simply lost or delayed. It means that many younger folk stop waiting and find other, more responsive outlets for their voluntarism.

A few years ago, I spoke to the international leadership of a very prestigious organization. At this retreat, their top “young leadership” was honored. I don’t remember everyone, but I do recall that one of the honorees was a 50 year old retiree, another was a 48 year old mayor, others were similarly accomplished. Yet without irony, this group bestowed their recognition on these “young” – read: “future” leaders. Old enough and accomplished enough to make a difference in the larger world, not yet ready to sit at the grown-up table for this non profit. How many of their peers would have been willing to wait their turn?

My own personal experience was similar: when I moved to NYC to head a significant foundation, I was already into my 50’s. Presumably, I had done enough by that time to merit such a position. Yet two international groups invited me to take an active role in their young leadership divisions. I was a bit unsure whether to be insulted or amused. Mirele convinced me that I should consider it a compliment; that I must have looked younger than my chronological age. [Those of you who know Mirele are not surprised!]

The short sightedness is not only that it is depriving the groups of fresh thinking; in many cases it is hastening their irrelevance. Frankly, the world has changed; loyalty is a very rare attribute and there is little evidence that it is rewarded; paying long term dues is hardly a convincing life plan – after all, there is little evidence that the ruling generations have made judgments which have made the world a better, kinder, gentler, more caring place than it would be in the hands and minds of a younger generation. The most exciting philanthropy, arts, political phenomena are surely not emerging from entrenched institutions but from those on the outside.

Not every new idea, project, approach, innovation is great, or worthy of success. Lots fail and many deserve to fail. But so what? So many of the ideas are successful and deserving. So many new ideas in philanthropy are emerging from younger folks – perhaps in need of some seasoning but asking the right questions, proposing credible solutions, and engaging entire swaths of the population in redressing the inequities in a flawed world. NextGen? It seems to me that it is truer to say ThisGen. Most non profits would do well to learn from them; most younger folks should realize it is already your world – don’t wait for a place at the table, set your own.

Of course, all of these changes have an impact and implication for my own work. But there is one piece of specific concern to many families who have experienced or intuited these changes: how and when to integrate this new thinking into family giving strategies. It is surely not a new question to wonder when and how to bring younger folk into a family foundation or decision making. But what if the newer generations simply see the world differently? Have a very different understanding of the roles of philanthropy and the non profit sector? Have a very different instinct regarding why philanthropy and how it can make a difference? In thse cases, the challenge is not how to bring children, grandchildren, great grandchildren into the inner circle in a thoughtful and systematic way; it is to recognize that the world view represented by some of these generations is so different that it challenges the very way in which family philanthropy functions.

In my work, this is one of the most intriguing and interesting challenges – sometimes leading to wonderful inter -generational understanding and visonary philanthropic responses; most often leading to a respectful and functional mutual accpetnace; occasionally to an unresolveable inability to reach a mutually satsifying phialnthropic strategy. For these last, NextGen may be exactly the right term.

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; and is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. He specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning. He can also be found blogging at Wise Philanthropy.