Philanthropy should welcome new styles of giving

Maeve Miccio
Maeve Miccio

Sparks flew when Emmett Carson, president and CEO of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, discussed a new generation of high-net-worth philanthropists with David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy. At a debate hosted by Philanthropy New York in April, the two focused on the concepts and ideas highlighted in Callahan’s new book, The Givers. Among other topics, the book examines the role of an emerging set of wealthy philanthropists who are disrupting norms and practices in our field.

One point within the debate that incited passion – and perhaps frustration – among the audience was a discussion about the ways in which this new set of donors seeks to engage with grantees. The perspective shared by Dr. Carson was that these high net worth donors often seek to become subject area experts on the issues they’re addressing, they desire a deep level of engagement with the leadership of the nonprofit organizations that they support and they are willing to make larger grants and take significant risks.

(This is a nine minute clip. View the entire debate.)

In reflecting upon the conversation, I recognize that the new dynamic presented by these donors begets the field to ask questions regarding potential challenges and threats:

  • Will these donors (many of whom do not have a professional background in social change) have too much influence on philanthropic organizations’ strategies and programs?
  • What if they want to disrupt for disruption’s sake? Will this threaten programs that have been proven to work well throughout the years?
  • Will boundaries between grantee and donor be respected in this new era of 24/7 connectivity and communication?
  • Will this next generation of donors learn from institutional funders who have been at this a long time, or will they disregard “the establishment”?

Many of these questions were raised by those in the audience during the PNY discussion. While these are valid questions, I believe that the field can look at the new donor dynamic either as a potential problem or as an opportunity. I personally choose the opportunity mindset, and I ask a different set of questions. Mine are focused on how we can set ourselves up for success when working with this group of entrepreneurial and engaged philanthropists:

  • How can nonprofits and foundations leverage donors’ interests in learning about the issues? How can we use that as an opportunity to serve as mentors in social change?
  • What can we learn from how these donors engage? Can we apply it to fundraising strategies geared toward new donors and board members?
  • Will these philanthropists underwrite pilot programs, big bets or technology investments that other donors will not invest in without a proof of concept?
  • Do we know where our lines and boundaries are? What proposals must we say “no” to, and are our boards and staff aligned with those boundaries? How do we set them early on?

In thinking about this new generation of philanthropists, it’s important to avoid stereotyping people or generalizing unnecessarily. Each of the philanthropists we work with is a unique individual with highly personal motivations, goals and interests. Approaching each of with the opportunity versus threat mindset should yield stronger results for our field and for the organizations we serve.

(This post originally appeared on Philanthropy New York's blog.)