The Challenges of the Generations

I sat down with Richard Marker during his recent trip to Israel. Richard was here to address the International Conference of Keren Hayesod the next afternoon. These are his reflections.

What did I learn from the international philanthropists?

They were from Latin America, Canada, Europe, Israel, South Africa, and Australia. All of them committed to philanthropy, and all of them eager to learn. My job – to translate the transformative elements of 21st Century philanthropy [and identity] to folks who successfully mastered the 20th. I was to address the challenges of the generations.

What was so refreshing, for me, was their openness. There was much less dismissiveness and defensiveness than one might have imagined. After all, these were people who had earned the right to be leaders – in their own communities, in their nations and international organizations. They had put their time, energy, and money on the table for many years. And they were being challenged by, of all things, an American. It would hardly have surprised me had they responded otherwise – they wouldn’t have been the first group of senior funders who have wished that the world would be as it used to be, and that the organizations they built would be embraced by their offspring.

There were a couple of areas about which there was some disagreement, to take but one example, about the significance of tax policies are to private giving. And there were clear cultural differences between different parts of the world.

But more than disagreement was genuine concern and puzzlement. For them, as for most senior communal leaders, commitment means loyalty and affiliation as the manifestations of identity. What does it mean to believe in a cause, they asked, if younger people don’t feel that they need to “belong” or have long term financial commitment or even the sense of responsibility to work for an organization? Isn’t organizational involvement the very manifestation of caring for a cause or community? Otherwise, isn’t it simply an indulgence.

Of course, those of us in this world accept that this is precisely the intergenerational divide. For newer funders, loyalty persuades less than performance, and proven results trump marketing messages. Why support an organization just because it has been around for a while and once may have been great? And why support [reputed] bloated bureaucracies when direct targeted grants will go directly to those in need?

What I found most moving was that the group of senior philanthropists I was meeting with had already accepted that the world was moving beyond them. As one of their most respected leaders emphasized, in his concluding comments on my words: “in my family, we have been having these discussions for a long time. Our philanthropy has changed because of it. The younger members simply don’t want to do it my way any longer.” These leaders really do care about being relevant and not just being honored. They really do want to find ways to convey their deepest values and caring to those who follow.

For the last several years, in my teaching and talking, I have spoken about a time of transition – between that which was to that which will be. This session with these 100 international philanthropists persuaded me that that isn’t the question any longer. It is the new era which already fully defines us.

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.