Why “Next-Gen” Misses the Point

By Richard Marker

Early in the aughts – remember those days? – I coined the expression: “to those of you under 40, we are guests in your century.”

Given how this century has gone recently, I am not sure it is much of a compliment, but it continues to be true. The ways we communicate and the ways we don’t communicate; the ways in which we express our identity, the ways in which we create and dissolve virtual communities; the ways in which we get our information; the institutions we trust and distrust; the ways in which we pay for things, or choose to reserve seats in restaurants, or make travel plans… It isn’t as if those of us who are older don’t do those things. We do, and for many if not most of us, our way of navigating through our daily lives looks much the same as it does for those younger, but we had to learn these things as outsiders. Younger folks are natives, and are all born with evolutionary advanced texting thumbs.

However, much of the philanthropy world still talks as if the younger folks, the proverbial “next-gen,” is still too young to sit at the grown-up table. Many struggle with how to acculturate their progeny to do things the way their parents and grandparents do them. [In a previous post, I related the story of being the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of a prestigious international organization. At that meeting, the organization honored their top young leaders – among them, a 50-year-old retiree with dot-com wealth and a 48-year-old mayor. Too bad they weren’t deemed ready to join the grown-ups.]

There is something not quite right when people who have demonstrated leadership roles in other settings, have successful careers, in many cases are well along raising their own children, are still considered to be too young for the decision-making circle of the family. Too often they are all lopped together as “next gens.”

Moreover, many professionals in our field talk about people born in different decades as if they are all the same. While it may be culturally relevant what bands people remember, where they were at different historic moments, what technology was new or old, and so forth, nevertheless people of the same generation can still have differing life experiences, values, politics, and aspirations. Not all offspring think the same way, not all siblings think the same way, and not all members of different generations think differently. Who is to say which generation is the source of the wealth? I once had a participant in a week-long course for philanthropists who, whenever asked about why she was participating, said that she was on the board of her uncle’s foundation. After the course was over, she confided that, in fact, the foundation was based on wealth she had accumulated as a young person and she had invited her uncle to sit on her foundation board. She is far from the only person, nor does she represent the only foundation I have known for whom the generational involvement in philanthropy goes more than one direction.

So, you can see why I reject the facile lumping of all succession questions as “next gen.” Family dynamics very rarely fit neatly into such predetermined boxes. Any of us who deal with family philanthropy on a regular basis, and most members of families, can certainly attest to that.

Succession is a very real and challenging issue that goes way beyond generational issues. Do spouses count? In-laws? Steps? Common-laws? Outsiders? Exes?

All too often foundation by-laws, created by well-intentioned family attorneys, only anticipate a single generation out, or don’t factor in the inevitable various permutations of our age. What may or may not make sense for all of those of a single generation may be counterproductive a generation hence.

And, let’s face it, there is nothing more loaded than having to make a policy decision when the effected persons are sitting right there. Ad personam decision-making, even if benign, is still personal.

Those of us in the family philanthropy field typically urge a family to address succession questions of inclusion as early as possible. Processes for engagement and empowerment are always adaptable and can be updated, but including or excluding family members after the fact is not pleasant.

There is no one size fits all – about generations, enfranchisement, succession, or the dynamics that inform decisions. There are, though, methods to help make constructive decisions, and properly applied, can make all the difference.

Richard Marker advises funders and foundations on their philanthropy strategy through Wise Philanthropy, and teaches philanthropists and foundation professionals at both Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and NYU Academy for Funder Education.