Interview: Marina Feffer Oelsner, Co-founder, Generation Pledge

Marina Feffer Oelsner

Alliance in collaboration with WINGS has been commissioned by Propel Philanthropy to conduct a 10-part interview series on the work of Social Impact Infrastructure Organisations (SIIOs) and the benefits they bring to the sector. This interview series aims to collectively galvanize a significant change in how funders and others think and feel about building infrastructure, unlocking global resources, and establishing robust ecosystems.

These interviews will being published here. In this instalment of the series of conversations with the representatives of SIIOs, Andrew Milner talks to Marina Feffer Oelsner of Generation Pledge.

Generation Pledge is a growing community of inheritors who have pledged to commit 10 percent of their inheritance to effective causes within five years of their inheritance. In this interview, Alliance features editor Andrew Milner sits down with Generation Pledge co-founder Marina Feffer Oelsner to discuss how she brings inheritors together to mobilise their capital for the greatest good.

Andrew Milner: Just to start off, can you tell me a little bit about Generation Pledge? I know you’re one of the co-founders, how and why did it come about?

Marina Feffer Oelsner: Generation Pledge was created five years ago by Sid [Efromovich] and myself. Before that we had started a for-profit consultancy company for families of wealth who wanted to deploy capital with effectiveness. We both bring a lot of experience in the fields of behavioural sciences, psychology, and impact, and we were originally really excited about the consultancy but then we started to see that there was a demographic that was really neglected: inheritors. This was really surprising given the power and influence they may have today or in the future. We asked ourselves, ‘why are we not working in a structured way with this demographic?’ and so we hibernated the consultancy company and started something that was focused exclusively on inheritors.

Over time, we learned that not only do inheritors have financial capital, they also have many other different types of capital, and we have to learn how to use that to make sure that we capitalise on the opportunities, as inheritors could truly hold the solutions to our world’s biggest problems. But there is still a lot of work to be done, as the impact ecosystem doesn’t generally focus on inheritors, and if it does, it does so in a very siloed way – either philanthropy, impact investing or through businesses, but not something that looks at the totality of their assets, and how to go about, what we call, the polycapital approach. This is why we decided to work with inheritors, because we believe that this is the most important demographic to activate. We also decided that we wanted to create a community for inheritors, because at the end of the day, we’re looking for a strategy that will shift culture, so it has to be a movement. We have to have enough scale so that we are moving many billions, and even trillions of dollars, which is ultimately a change in the culture of multi-generational wealth.

AM: So you only work with inheritors? 

MFO: Yes. In our theory of change, we work directly with inheritors and we also look into the ecosystem, but through inheritors. By inheritors, we don’t mean young people only, we’re talking about the second generation of wealth onwards, and that is because the psychology of inheritors is unique and different from that of wealth creators. That is why we focus on second-gen onwards, so we could work with someone who is 18 years old, or someone who is in their 90s.

AM: You talk about breaking the silos but how do you bring them all together? What means do you use?

MFO: We have virtual and in-person experiences. We were originally set up to operate remotely and globally, even before Covid happened, so we were fortunately set up to work effectively even throughout the pandemic.

AM: Do you refer to yourself as consultants, advisors, a network body, a movement?

MFO: We are a community. We say that we’re doing the work as trusted advisors, community facilitators and peers. So, how is Generation Pledge set up? We invite people to take a pledge, which entails two different parts. The first one is when someone inherits – this could have happened already or will happen some time into the future – they commit to giving philanthropically at least 10 per cent of their total inheritance within the first five years of inheriting. The second piece speaks about polycapital. How do they mobilise their investments, their philanthropy, their businesses for those who are still operating companies, but also their social capital, their political capital and their career capital? How do they map their polycapital and mobilise that? That’s very individual to each person and family, as the structures and portfolios are built in unique ways.

MFO: The act of taking the Pledge is a ritual and an extremely important moment, and at the same time, it’s also the beginning of the journey,  as we’re going to spend a lifetime together. We explain to prospective pledgers that it’s a long-term journey, so expectations are set at the beginning. Once they come into the community, they will find education, advice and support. That is why we say that we’re advisors, community facilitators and peers.

AM: Do you provide all those things or do you just steer them in the particular direction?

MFO: No, we provide them. Just as an example, in the advisory, we have a project which we call the Task Force. Whenever someone is ready to deploy capital within a short space of time, they can activate our team of impact experts, and we support them in going through a journey, which is a very sophisticated, hands-on journey. We support our community in understanding the concepts of effectiveness, expected value, how to choose cause areas in a way that is very intentional, and using the best information out there, not only using your passion which can sometimes be misleading. We want people to make decisions in the most thoughtful ways possible.

AM: Do you have preferred areas that you steer them towards? Or does that come entirely from them?

MFO: It’s actually a hybrid. There are some people who come in saying, ‘I’m completely neutral, tell me where the best cost/benefit is and I’m very happy to follow your guidance’, but these are rare. Most people come in with values, priorities, personal or familial experiences, with their preferences. So what we do when they arrive is help them clarify their preferences and make sure that the actions they are taking are in line with the values they hold, and that these are the best ways of building a world they would be happy to live in. We are not suggesting what they should do, but supporting a clarification process, and bringing a blend of preferences with the rigorous impact work.

AM: So you’re able to track your work with them and what their philanthropic investments achieve? That’s part of what you do.

MFO: Yes, absolutely. For people who want to have real hands-on advisory, we can guide them in this journey, which takes months and ends at the moment when they’re ready to deploy capital and we help them track that.  Something that we’re starting now is an offering called Impact Cycles where we help them map  their polycapital and develop a plan of action, which we review after a certain period of time, to understand what worked, what didn’t, how we can resource them better, are there lessons learned, etc? We offer a process that is now more streamlined but in essence, it is made to capture the uniqueness of each pledger.  We have an individualised strategy to make sure that people feel engaged and that we can really capture the effectiveness of what we’re doing. Our strategy has to encompass a bespoke layer, added to the collective work, or else it doesn’t work.

AM: What are the implications of that approach for your staffing and your own time? It must be very labour- and time-intensive.

MFO: Yes. It means that we’re growing our team. We need to have world-class professionals, which is both expensive and crucial. But if we look into what we cost and what we influence, it’s really worth it. Just to exemplify the leverage that we have, for every US dollar that Generation Pledge receives – only talking philanthropy without considering  polycapital – we have unlocked US$440 of additional capital. There was a moment where Sid and I sat down and said ‘are we in a position to be able to take that risk of having a bespoke strategy?’ We looked into the numbers and decided it is really worth it, specially considering that a smaller fraction of the community will be very active at a the same time. And now, we’re streamlining our processes more so we can increase the cadence of work with each pledger.

‘The act of taking the Pledge is a ritual and an extremely important moment, and at the same time, it’s also the beginning of the journey,  as we’re going to spend a lifetime together. We explain to prospective pledgers that it’s a long-term journey, so expectations are set at the beginning.’

AM: You talked about the different preferences people bring and you mentioned them choosing different cause areas. Obviously there are enormous issues. Are you able to satisfactorily monitor how effective the work your community is doing in these areas?

MFO: We work closely with our pledger and with partners, with humility and understanding that there is a limit to track effectiveness, and what we try to do is to keep the most rigorous work out there. Yet, we  try to gather information about how the pledgers are deploying capital and influence when and where it makes sense. For example, there was someone from Guatemala who came with many premises – what he wanted to do, why he wanted to do it and very respectfully but incisively, we asked, ‘are you willing to listen to other things?’ and he said yes.

So, I questioned why he wanted to set up an endowment for a university that is already rich. Why endow a scholarship if there are other things that have a bigger impact? Months into the story, he completely changed his set of premises for impact, and what he’s doing now is vastly more impactful. He’s using his social capital, his political capital, his position within the university to bring J-Pal[1]  to Guatemala, so we expect the impact to be huge. In this case we will continuously stay close with the pledger to learn together on how the work is evolving and how effective it’s proving itself to be. The same happens with other pledgers to keep monitoring as best as possible the results of deployments.

AM: You talked at the beginning about the ecosystem for inheritors not being there or being very fragmented. Are you trying to be that ecosystem yourselves?

MFO: We are part of this ecosystem, and we work closely with some of the existing organisations, some who share the same public as we do, some who work with specific approaches such as philanthropy or impact investments, and others who work with specific causes. The work we are developing as  Generation Pledge has a specific cause area, which is the metaspace. It is the infrastructure of capital. There is an annual  gap of US$3.9 trillion, approximately, in funding for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and we are determined to make this gap much smaller.

Our thesis is, unless we figure out a way of making sure that the infrastructure for deploying capital has enough money, we’re not going to be able to live in a future we would like to live in. So it’s not only moving some money, it’s figuring out how to change the whole flow of money within the economic system. That’s why we say that we have to make a change in the mindset of multi-generational wealth, of private wealth. Unless we do that, we’re not going to be able to unleash these proportions of capital needed.

AM: Through both the money they have but also through their influence with those institutions as well?

MGO: Exactly.

AM: You mentioned the SDGs, do you use those as a general sort of template for cause areas?

MFO: Not only that, we use it as language to communicate, especially with other players in the ecosystem, but it’s not our only lens. There are some things, for example, existential risk  connected to AI, which are really important to us, nuclear, biosecurity, things that we don’t see in the SDGs but we consider to be priorities as well.

AM: And you would try to influence your community to also take those on?

MFO: Absolutely, yes. When we’re talking to people about how to go about impact effectiveness, we know that choosing a cause area is one of the most important things that one has to do, so we help them. We offer them a process where they will go through their values mapping, where they’ll be exposed to comparisons between different cause areas, so they know what possibilities are before they go ahead and make their decisions.

AM: How do you assess your most important contribution to the sector?

MFO: There is one thing we’re working on now that is getting me very excited because it could have an impact on the wealth ecosystem. Sharing the context, the wealth industry today functions with only one mindset as a default which is preserve and grow wealth. This is the thinking you learn within families, in business schools, from consultants, and from all of the financial institutions.

The whole industry functions with one way of thinking, but what we have understood is that not all wealthy individuals or inheritors align with that vision for wealth. There are other ways of conceiving wealth, but we don’t have the language to talk about it. There is an unlock that has to happen and which we believe will be absolutely transformative, because it could create ways for people to envision and build portfolios in accordance with their values and beliefs. We were fortunate enough to have received a grant which gives us the opportunity to develop understanding and research about this unlock. At this time, we are not in a position to talk about the project specifics as it is waiting to be rigoursly tested, but we look forward to sharing more details in the future.

‘The whole industry functions with one way of thinking, but what we have understood is that not all wealthy individuals or inheritors align with that vision for wealth. There are other ways of conceiving wealth, but we don’t have the language to talk about it.’

Aside from our work in progress, one of our most important contributions to the sector is our robust advisory and deployment process that we created for our pledgers. To do this, we developed language and frameworks we could not find in the impact ecosystem elsewhere. There was no method we could find for people to consistently deploy capital in the most effective ways and there was no language to describe using different  forms of capital to generate the most impact. So we created, vetted and tested the LEB model that stands for Look, Envision and Build  for consistent effective deployments, as well as the polycapital framework to map the different forms of capital an individual has. We were then invited to publish both of these, and several other concepts that we’ve polished, in a report with McKinsey & Company, Ashoka and other partners, , the Influence for Good report, on how highly resourced individuals can work towards positive systemic change.

AM: And your community buys into this idea?

MFO: Yes.

AM: How big is the community? Are you happy with the way it’s growing or did you expect more pledgers?

MFO: We have 86 pledgers from 24 different countries. We are very happy with this number at this stage of Generation Pledge. We just had our first global in-person gathering in the UK where over 25 per cent of our pledger community joined us from far and wide, and it was magical. Until then the work we were doing was predominantly virtual, so it was really special to see the community coming together and starting to show its colours. We’re very satisfied, but we’re ready to grow. This year, we decided to fundraise in a more intensive manner than we have done before, and this has competed with my capacity to focus on growth for the community.

AM: Do you find that a frustration?

MFO: Yes. I would prefer to be able to focus my efforts on growing our community, identifying the right peers and partners, and not having to invest so much time in fundraising. I find it quite hard to identify who could be potential funders who understand the infrastructure of capital as a cause area, so we really value that Peter [Brach][2] is bringing more awareness to the topic through this project. We also talk to our pledgers about the importance of funding infrastructure.

AM: The members of your community, you were saying, don’t pay anything to be members, so you have to fundraise. Traditionally, funders are very reluctant to fund infrastructure. Has that been your experience?

MFO: Yes. We set up Generation Pledge as an organisation that is not a membership organisation on purpose, because this demographic is very used to being seen as having money stamped on their forehead, and we’re here to develop something over the long term where intimacy and trust is really the most important asset because we’re going to have to do things collectively.  If they see us as service providers, the energy exchange is completely different. So we have people in our community who are very senior members of other communities, and they tell us they haven’t felt such a culture in those other communities. Generation Pledge is the place where they feel they can talk about things in a way they have not done before, they can think about things in a different way, they can be provoked but in a very safe and thoughtful way. So, until now we have been funded by philanthropic donors, but we are shifting the fundraising model and creating a new entity which I can’t say much about yet, but it will be the engine that creates revenues to sustain Generation Pledge.

AM: So from your community’s point of view, the key thing is it’s not transactional, it works in terms of relationships. Do your community members form relationships with each other and support common endeavours in their philanthropy?

MFO: It has happened, but still in more timid ways and one of the things that we’re very intrigued about after the global gathering is how do we support collective action in a more intentional way, as we heard there is an appetite from our community for such a thing. That is something that our team is focusing a lot of energy on now to make happen. We’re spending a lot of time on the question of how collective action comes about and we are excited about the possibilities ahead.

AM: Presumably this brings in the psychological aspect, the behavioural aspect you were talking about at the beginning.

MFO: Through the work that we offer individually and also collectively we always use behavioural sciences together with the impact piece. We support our community in leaning into the human conversations and also the tough impact conversations, and we try to offer space so that we can go beyond our own individualised passions but really ask ourselves what is needed in the world. One interesting thing is that all of our team who have direct contact with our pledgers go through a 200+ hour certification in Applied Positive Psychology, to support our community to navigate all of the behavioural complexities. We try to drive conversations to be effectiveness-oriented and not self-oriented. Our goal is to see a significant portion of the demographic of inheritors serving the world to solve our biggest challenges.

AM: And you draw on the effective altruism approach?

MFO: We have effective altruism as a source of knowledge, but we do take other things into account also.

AM: What do you think is working best in terms of what you do with your community?

MFO: I think that the Task Forces have been a great success. These are advisory Task Forces where we support the pledger in building a plan so they can deploy any form of capital within our polycapital framework. We have people who come in saying, ‘I’m ready to deploy capital, can you support me with that?’ And we do. The quality that we see with these processes are impressive, meaning we can support our pledgers in taking them through a journey that gets them set to deploy capital in a way that we believe to be more effective than their initial plan. We get excited when we see these counterfactual impacts.

‘We have 86 pledgers from 24 different countries. We are very happy with this number at this stage of Generation Pledge. We just had our first global in-person gathering in the UK where over 25 per cent of our pledger community joined us from far and wide, and it was magical.’

AM: Are those in-house people on the deployment Task Force, or are they people you bring in specially? 

MFO: It’s totally in-house for now. That is a big success. I think that the other successes are the methodologies that we have been able to create. For example, we have a model that brings in the best impact resources that we know of, but it is adapted to the behavioural sciences. We use positive psychology to support how people go through a journey of making impact become actionable. We use the LEB model I mentioned earlier –  to make sure that they are always evolving: look with courage, envision with rigour, and build with excellence. Then, when people prepare for the Pledge itself, they receive a workbook which has chapters on the aspects of polycapital. Many people come with a business lens or an impact investing lens or a philanthropy lens, and we support them in seeing that all of those can be used as leverage. I think these are the main successes.

Let me add one other thing, which is helping people change their view on volume. What I mean by that is that, when you do things alone, you have a certain volume, but when you come into a community that is building in the same direction to change the culture around multi-generational wealth and to make sure that the infrastructure of capital is funded, the leverage is so much bigger, the volume of money moved and impact generated increases and when you help people understand that, then your expected value is way higher. I consider this to also be one of our biggest successes.

AM: So it’s the multiplier effect?

MFO: Absolutely, yes.

AM: Are there any areas of your work that you’re less happy with, have not developed perhaps as quickly as you hoped or aren’t doing as well as you hoped?

MFO: Funding. It takes a lot of time, more than I would like. I’m enjoying some of the funding conversations now, but I’m spending way more time on this than I would like to and it competes with my impact work, which means that I’m less able to grow the community at the speed that I would like to. These are the biggest challenges.

AM: Do you find pledgers coming on board as quickly as you’d like them to? Did you expect there to be more?

MFO: There is a saying about inheritors, that they are the people who were born with an impact gene. If that were true, our work would be easier. I think that within the demographic of inheritors, there is a lot of conservatism still. We have to identify those who really have a deep desire for impact. So growing the community is not always easy because we have to search for these people. Sometimes they search for us. But it’s something that demands active energy from our side.

Who comes into Generation Pledge? Either people who know what they want, know who they are, and Generation Pledge fits in very neatly with their individual theory of change or they are people who have an interest in impact, but they have to overcome some biases, and that’s where we have to breathe together and have important conversations. Sometimes they have to overcome the bias to preserve and grow wealth we talked about earlier, other times they have to overcome fear: ‘if I decide to do this, will I be disrespectful of my legacy?’ So there are many emotional elements that come up and we have to identify those who offer us the space to have the conversations that will allow them to think about things.

AM: Where would you like to see Generation Pledge in ten years’ time?

MFO: In ten years, we would like to have a community of thousands of pledgers committed to this movement. Many billions of dollars shifted, but aiming towards the trillions of dollars, and obviously that’s not going to happen only through the philanthropic commitment of our pledgers, but because we’re tapping into how to unleash capital in different institutions, such as governments, to really capitalise on polycapital to solve our major challenges

Marina Feffer Oelsner is the Co-founder of Generation Pledge


1 The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is a global research centre working to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence.

2 Peter Brach is the Founder of Propel Philanthropy, who commissioned this project.

This interview is being shared free-to-read as a part of the Propel Philanthropy interview project. In addition to this article series, Propel Philanthropy collects stories demonstrating that modest grants can drive results. You can learn more here.

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