The Innovation Generation: The “Values” Proposition

In my work with families and foundations helping them make good [for them] decisions about their giving strategies, there are two pre-condition steps which make all the difference: I help them understand their “culture” and their “values.” Without an understanding of both of those, their philanthropy may be high quality but their satisfaction is likely not to be. So I spend a lot of time on both.

With the critical mass of newer models of non profit organizations and giving models, it is interesting to step back to see what it looks like from the “culture” and “values” vantage.

There is no need to rehearse here all of the developments of this era. Technology and communication have redefined how we do things, when we do things, with whom we do things. The question which remains is does it change why we do things. We know that there is a speed and rapidity of the spread of information unimagined only 2 decades ago; there is a concomitant lower cost of entry which means that innovation and experimentation are available to huge numbers; we know that boundaries and borders are porous; we know that communities [whatever that means] are virtual, viral, and transient.

The cultural response to all of this is pretty clear [although by no means trauma free]. Many of the younger people I know feel that the concept of privacy has essentially disappeared. Loyalty, if it means anything, certainly doesn’t mean what it did in the past. The anarchy of knowledge lets people question whether all “truth” is relative, or at least have a pervasive skepticism toward any claim. We know that just as economies are global so are connections only coincidentally geographically bound. We know that the experience of and in cyberspace can be more encompassing and defining as anything outside of one’s front door.

The question: if the way in which we experience the world is so profoundly changed, have our values changed as well? For example, we may believe in “open source” organizations, programming, etc. but do we behave that way in our relations with our co-workers, our business competitors, our social circles or are we just as competitive, protective, and ego driven in those realms? We may believe in the absence of privacy but do we know when information can hurt, or help, another? We may believe in the anarchy of a Google search, often driven by popularity of clicks, making all information open to all and not just “experts, but do we know how to distinguish what is pure fiction from what has more legitimacy? We may have a healthy skepticism toward the limits of the modern nation state, but what system are we moving toward which protects civil liberties, human freedom, and provides much needed human services? We may be fascinated by and participate in the very welcome opportunity to direct one’s personal philanthropy toward a project of one’s choosing [by the click of a mouse], but are we learning how to know the difference between fads and real problem solving?

As readers of my blogs know, and people who have heard me speak over the last several years certainly know, I am a believer in the concept I coined a few years ago: that those of us above a certain age are “guests in this century”©. The challenge is NOT to get those of this transformed world to embrace a culture or values of a century and era now past. That is not a worthwhile enterprise and would be unsuccessful anyway. It is incumbent upon us to embrace the culture of this world – or get out of the way. One of the great joys of my life is the time I spend learning from, and occasionally sharing wisdom with, those who are reinventing the world in which we live.

But we are not exempt from engaging the values question. Change is disruptive. In the rush to the future, people lose jobs, people get hurt, and values suspended. It is my belief that we are now at the time when the celebration of innovation, transformation, and social networking suggests an approaching maturity. After all, who doesn’t use Google? Who still thinks that Facebook is for kids? Changes will continue, innovation will expand, networking is only just beginning. But it is also time to begin to decide to commit ourselves to thinking about what we mean by responsibility, legitimacy, reliability, honesty, and transparency. If we do, it will be interesting to see whether our new world will be accompanied by a new humanism, true collaboration, and selflessness. If so, the disruption wrought by technology will be more than justified and history will smile upon this era; if not, we will have a lot of cleaning up to do.

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; he is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. Richard specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning. He is an occasional contributor to eJewish Philanthropy and regularly blogs at Wise Philanthropy.