As the urgent needs of the pandemic spread like wildfire last year, Caitlin Heising knew that she and her family had to do something big. As the daughter of Giving Pledge signers and vice-chair of their San Francisco Bay Area-based Heising-Simons Foundation, Caitlin had the opportunity – and felt the obligation – to ensure that she and her family responded quickly and significantly.
Right away the foundation gave $2 million to the UCSF Medical Center to fund Covid-19 testing and treatment efforts, particularly in underserved and undocumented communities. They also formed a partnership with the state of California to help overcome a PPE shortage, created a rapid response fund for grantees who were facing financial strain, and initiated new grantmaking in their community to support equitable economic recovery.
Then, as the other crises of 2020 played out across the US, with communities confronting anew historic patterns of systemic racism and social injustice, Caitlin worked closely with the foundation to expand its existing human rights program and deepen the focus on racial justice, to make new investments in Black-led nonprofits and 501c4 advocacy organisations using a newly established ‘Action Fund’, and to evaluate internal hiring and operational practices with an equity and inclusiveness lens.
She also felt pulled to respond as an individual, outside of the foundation and traditional philanthropic practices. She began organising virtual educational and fundraising events to support racial justice and human rights, talked to friends and family about how best to back organisations working to end systemic racism and police brutality, and used her social media feeds to draw attention to these issues and lift up those doing transformative work.
Gen Xers and Millennials who have the capacity for big giving – either from their own wealth creation or because of the historic wealth transfer – promise to be the ‘most significant donors in history’.
Caitlin is not an isolated case. We’ve heard similar stories from many other next-gen donors in the US, whether younger Gen Xers and Millennials or emerging adults in Gen Z with a similar capacity for significant giving. These stories tell first of amped-up grantmaking in response to the crises of 2020. But, like Caitlin’s story, they also reveal the ways in which next-gen donors dug through their proverbial toolkits for any and every implement they could use beyond traditional grantmaking—from their investments of different kinds of capital to their political engagements to organising their networks and maximising their social ties.
We’ve been conducting research on the next generation of major donors for a decade now, reporting our findings about this group we call ‘Generation Impact‘ in Alliance and elsewhere. We’ve argued that these Gen Xers and Millennials who have the capacity for big giving – either from their own wealth creation or because of the historic wealth transfer – promise to be the ‘most significant donors in history’. Members of this cohort find themselves with unprecedented resources and are choosing to address societal ills earlier and throughout their lives. They are also figuring out their philanthropic identities during an historic evolution of the methods of achieving impact – and show a strong desire to drive that change even faster.
As the crises of 2020 cascaded, we paid particular attention to what this ‘most significant’ cohort would do. We fielded an open-ended survey throughout the summer of 2020 to ask next-gen individuals with the capacity for major giving how they were – or were not – responding to the pandemic, the subsequent economic collapse, and the nation’s racial reckoning. The 110 people in the US who took the survey, and other members of Generations X, Y, and Z whose reflections we’ve sought out over the past year, revealed what they did, including with their extended families and various giving networks and vehicles.
Like other donors and funders last year, these next-gen donors described how they and their families stepped up their giving, adapted proposal and reporting requirements so grantees could focus on their missions, and struggled through tough questions about power, racial bias, and social justice in both their communities and in philanthropy.
However, many like Caitlin Heising didn’t just want to give as a response to crisis. They also wanted to try other paths for potential change, actions that many of them felt would help alleviate the crises better and longer than grantmaking alone. They looked for ways to use their considerable power not only as philanthropists but as consumers and investors and business owners. And they leaned into efforts to pull political levers to organise, mobilise, and fund those working on the ground.
We knew from our prior research and other writing that people in their twenties, thirties, and forties don’t just want to be charitable check-writers. They don’t equate ‘doing good’ with just ‘supporting nonprofits’. For example, there is mounting evidence that Millennials choose to advance their causes through voting, movement-building, electronic petitioning, and making socially responsible choices as investors and consumers. And they often opt for these methods before – or more intensely than – their philanthropy. The year 2020, it appears, deepened that conviction.
Many of the next-gen donors we surveyed and talked to said they tried new options that they—or their family—had not previously ventured into before. Increased political activism and funding were particularly popular. This included more funding for 501c4 groups, supporting political campaigns and candidates, and pushing their family institutions to start giving to movements. Personal political engagements were included as well, from marching in BLM protests to phone banking for get-out-the-vote efforts and mobilising online campaigns to pressure political officials. In fact, when answering a general question about their ‘personal responses to our current crises’, 68 per cent of survey respondents mentioned some sort of political funding or activism – from ‘engaging in the political and democracy space’ to ‘mobilising for social justice’ and ‘leaning into electoral work’.
The financial and commercial tools the next-gen pulled out in 2020 were even more diverse than the political. They tried to fundamentally change how they acted as consumers, as investors, and as business owners. Many talked about buying less from Amazon and more from BIPOC-owned local businesses.
Millennials choose to advance their causes through voting, movement-building, electronic petitioning, and making socially responsible choices as investors and consumers.
Some who were business owners looked for ways to use their businesses to help with Covid relief or to support social justice movements. One person who founded a tech company said, we ‘used our data scientists to help streamline application processes and fund distribution to support individuals to pay rent and utilities for a local fund at United Way’. Another who worked for the family agricultural business explained, ‘We have partnered with a research/organising effort to support Black farmers in the Deep South to access concessionary financing (reparations!) and cultivate heritage crops that have been lost for many generations.’
Because this generation has such considerable assets, the new steps they took in their investments are especially notable. We heard a lot about efforts to revise their – or their family’s – investment and endowment portfolios to introduce ESG or socially responsible screens, to shift money toward local community assets, to ramp up shareholder engagement, and to advocate for banking partners to enhance their sustainability practices. For example, fifth-generation members of the Rockefeller family – Peter Gill Case, Danny Growald and Valerie Rockefeller – initiated ‘BankFWD‘, which Valerie described to us as ‘a coalition of individuals, companies, foundations, and other nonprofits committed to using our collective wealth, public standing, networks, and other means of influence to persuade the major U.S. banks where we are clients to align with the 2015 Paris Agreement climate goals.’
Another next-gen leader, Sapphira Goradia, is the executive director of her family’s Vijay and Marie Goradia Foundation and funds organisations like Pratham, which implements innovative interventions to address gaps in India’s education system. In 2020, the foundation provided emergency funding in the U.S. and India, and offered no-interest loans to existing grantees as a creative way to help them bridge the gap until expected but delayed revenues came in. The loans allowed these key grantees to keep people on the payroll, provide health care for employees, and continue to serve their constituents. Sapphira had also for years wanted to call her family’s attention to the composition of their grantees’ staff and boards and examine other levers for change. The year 2020 gave her the chance to finally do so.
For all of us, the looming question is: What happens now? We don’t know if the innovations and changes the next-gen fueled in 2020 will stick—or if funders will revert to traditional approaches once the crises abate. Some evidence coming out suggests that other major donors plan to return to pre-2020 patterns, but what about the next-gen? And if the changes do stick, what are the long-term consequences for how giving and social change will happen once this ‘most significant’ generation takes the reins?
We also have to investigate these same questions for next-gen donors based outside the US. Is this same passion for using multiple tools for change energising the next-gen philanthropic leaders that we know are emerging in Europe, Asia, South America, the Middle East, or elsewhere? While we’ve seen some indications of what these rising global donors want to do in their giving, we need more research to answer these vital questions.
Michael Moody is the Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University. Sharna Goldseker is the Founder and Vice President of 21/64, a nonprofit practice serving next-gen and multigenerational philanthropic families, and co-author of the best-selling book, Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving.