Philanthropy is rarely a young person’s game. Tech innovators and entertainers aside, those who can afford to give headline-grabbing sums generally do so later in life, towards the end of a career or in retirement. And with the millennial generation often stereotyped as unemployed, unmotivated, and generally adrift, it would seem unrealistic to look to them for buckets of cash. But next-generation philanthropists aren’t waiting for wealth, and their enthusiasm may be their greatest asset.
In July 2013 about 700 people, most of them young, gathered at the United Nations Headquarters in New York for a global youth summit on innovative philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. The organizing body, Nexus, was founded a couple years prior in partnership with the UN and other governments in an effort to involve young people in a global culture of philanthropy. That year's summit, Nexus’ third, was easily its largest and most exuberant up to that point.
What distinguished this gathering from, say, a dinner of Giving Pledge signatories, however, was not the number of zeroes before a decimal; it was a fundamentally different approach to giving. “I think people in our generation see the term ‘philanthropist’ as a passive term,” Nexus cofounder Rachel Cohen Gerrol said in an interview with Giving Magazine, “like, ‘I’m a check writer,’ and they feel that much of the value they have to offer is not located in their checkbook. If you go back to the larger sense of ‘philanthropist’ as a caretaker or lover of humanity, that would be much more in line with how people would define themselves.”
That’s true even of young attendees who actually have access to a checkbook, such as Zac Russell, the youngest and only next generation member of the board of the Russell Family Foundation (which has an endowment of roughly $135 million). Like many of his peers, Russell has a broader definition of what it means to be a donor. “‘Philanthropy’ means money in modern contemporary [terms], but I think of it as time,” he said during the summit. “I think of it as intention, of making the world possible that you want to see by your actions. It just so happens that in our contemporary world money relates to action.”
In connecting money to action, Russell is in good company at Nexus. “We’ve made this shift from philanthropic giving to philanthropic living for this community,” Gerrol said, “and that means that you’re voting with your dollars every time you purchase a candy bar or a purse just as much as you are when you decide where to write your foundation check to or what you do professionally.” (Notably, the conference gave out goodie bags stuffed with Kind cereal bars and “ethical” treats from Taza Chocolate and Kopali Organics.)
Perhaps nowhere was this concept better embodied than in a conversation during the summit between Kenneth Cole, better known as a designer than as an activist, and his daughter about fashionable philanthropy and clever social marketing. (Cole’s products—“be awear” bracelets, “hot in here” T-shirts about climate change—have garnered publicity and raised funds for causes for years.) In fact, one of the strengths of Nexus’ summits is their ability, as a watering hole for the upscale young, to attract bold-face names. Adrian Grenier, environmentalist and star of the popular HBO show Entourage, helped draw a crowd the first morning. By contrast, veteran civil rights activist and singer Harry Belafonte attracted about 30 attendees and issued a call to action on more ‘60s-style terms. He also added a note of deja-vu. “I’ve been before you before, Nexus,” he said, “because among a number of titles, I’ve also been a beggar. I don’t like it, it tampers with my dignity, but it’s a necessity. What bothers me is how often we have to beg for the same money, for the same cause.”
The distinction between traditional philanthropy and social or impact investing—and the issue of which is the more effective path forward—was reflected throughout the summit. Ladislav Kossar, the manager of a philanthropic investment group in Eastern Europe, asked attendees to place their own endeavors on a spectrum, from “pure philanthropy” to investments with an expectation of financial return. The response resulted in a watershed moment: It became evident that the room was full of entrepreneurs and self-starters, not traditional givers.
Judging from such measures, young people at the summit were the actors rather than the funders of change. Heirs such as Zac Russell were far outnumbered by ambitious entrepreneurs that need money like his family’s, and the summit is less an explicit bridge between the two than it is a meeting ground. At the same time, as Gerrol noted, many participants wear more than one hat. For example, she pointed to Lana Volfstun, who is the executive director of One Percent Foundation, which is trying to encourage giving circles and philanthropy within the millennial generation; she is also from a very philanthropic family and has been involved with two programs for young philanthropists in the Jewish community. “She might come off as a social entrepreneur, but she’s also a philanthropist,” Gerrol noted.
Of the dozens of panel discussions, most were on issue-driven topics related to equality and awareness, with names like “How Pop Culture Can Drive Social Change” and “Women and Girls.” Yet there were also a few breakaway sessions for current and prospective possessors of wealth: “Taking on a Role in the Family Foundation” and “How to Distinguish Oneself When a Parent’s Legacy Casts a Wide Shadow.”
It’s likely that Nexus’ future lies in its potential for breaking down walls between the askers and the givers in its own ranks. For now, the summits have done an impressive job in sparking a dialogue—and with it the recognition that some of this dialogue has been held before. “These are conversations that were percolating in the hallways and the hidden corners of conferences about similar issues twenty or thirty years ago,” Gerrol noted. “If you look at who were the students in the ‘60s, they were radicals and revolutionaries, and they are now people in their sixties today. I think as we build a movement of youth, we need to be standing on the shoulders of those who laid the foundation for this movement to exist, and to learn from them.” For today’s older donors, that could be as good as it gets.