Tyler Mahoney is a former intern at The Foraker Group and currently blogs on The Huffington Post. He offers these thoughts on youth, philanthropy and what inspires Gen Y to give.
Before we move into young people and philanthropy I want to take a minute to help you understand the mindset of a young change maker. In a time where young people fill their lives with passions and illusions, I assert that the nonprofit organization provides a real grounded tool for the forming and shaping of society at a time when current world events are quickly entering text books faster than ever before.
Our parents were transfixed by Atlas Shrugged, Reaganism, and evolution of the American dream – from entering the middle class to seeing if they can get that same McMansion they see on television. In contrast, young people are rejecting the post-modern wanderlust molded by the Baby Boomers and are returning to a pre-modern, pre-industrial understanding of the world. They hold a worldview no longer constructed for the purpose of increased efficiency and work performance within an ever-smaller time frame – instead, it’s a worldview interested in rhythms and seasons of life. We are paying attention to where our food comes from, moving away from the “safety” of suburbia, and working together like the French communes of the 19th century. This often gets translated as “a desire for work-life balance.” In reality, it’s a paradigm shift.
Young people today are communitarians without even knowing it, that's the fancy word for “barn raising,” or what we call a Kickstarter campaign today. This is what happens when you lack resources and opportunity, you actually have to rely on each other and pool your fiscal and human capital in order to achieve success. So when I hear older generations complain about Gen Y as an “everyone gets a trophy” mindset, I come back with “at least we know how to work together to get a trophy.”
This is an issue of worldviews. In the same way the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 foreshadowed the demise of the communist colossus, the fall of Lehman Brothers ignited the 2008 financial crisis and revealed the flaws in the victorious armor of capitalism. Within two decades, young people have seen the gaping holes in both of the major economic systems of the modern age. These changes are making people question things.
What you’ll start to see is young people don’t agree with the Milton Friedman division of social responsibility and corporate shareholder accountability. Friedman argued that corporations should be focused on the bottom line alone and should leave social responsibility to the nonprofits. Maybe it’s the rise of social entrepreneurship in the world, but young people view for-profits as organizations with a responsibility to society – not just stakeholders and shareholders. Public corporations are going to have to justify their existence on more than profit alone. Instead they must consider what Michael Porter and Mark Kramer have highlighted as shared value.
Young people are just on the horizon of creating shared value in this next wave of entrepreneurism. The local “mom and pop shop” is now started by people who don’t have kids yet. These people are by no means the elite or second career types retiring to start a vineyard. They are young people creating an ecosystem of advocacy, economics, and philanthropy different from the broader corporate structures.
They are creating the economy they want to live in, after encountering a series of closed doors in the modern workplace. I’ve watched local entrepreneurs raise money via Kickstarter or Indiegogo to buy a coffee shop, then turn around and promote – and give money to – other crowd-funding campaigns. It’s modern day “barn raising” if I’ve ever seen it, and it’s based on wanting the best for their town both economically and socially.
And this shouldn’t surprise you. Since the third grade we’ve been working together raising money for all sorts of things. For instance, to save the rainforest – no joke – I’ve been doing donor development for this cause for 20 years, as have most of my peers.
The encounter with the poor
Asking people to give outside their experience can be difficult. People like to give within their values because it’s within their understanding and experience. Sometimes people just lack empathy, and other times they lack empathy because they lack an encounter. For example, our stratified society means that often we don’t have encounters with the poor. These encounters are important to develop empathy whether they take the form of volunteering, seeing a documentary, or putting in the effort to serve. Encouraging young people to have these encounters will shape their worldview for the rest of their lives.
And if donation trends hold, Gen Y, a generation known for its volunteering, will give money to the organizations where they volunteered. A passion for a cause has to be ignited and then maintained. People give to causes they are passionate about and that have formed their character in some way.
Understanding our resources: time vs. money
We have lots of student loans, we can’t buy houses, and we are dealing with it. But we do have some time and unique generational skills! And honestly, we are better at social media than you. Just the other day as I was reading at a coffee shop I overheard a 30-minute discussion about a local nonprofit thinking of hiring a social media manager. Just hire a college student, I thought. They are naturally gifted at this, they love to give back, and they like to have a purpose.
Investing without power
Philanthropy is not a path to power for young people like it is for older generations. We don’t have enough money to gain any power yet or pay off our student loans. Philanthropy for the younger generation is a path to purpose – a call to participation in a culture we want to support. We can’t afford to put our names on buildings or start initiatives. However, we do actually give from our heart, so please respect that. We may not be big donors now, but give it time, as we move up in the economy we will give more along the way. If you are really serious about sustainability, you’ll be talking to young people today and you’ll be raking in donations when they are mid-level managers in seven years. Maybe this is what Jesus was getting at with the “cup of cold water” line in the New Testament. It’s about the intent to give, not the amount given. Take the time to respect that intent.
Invite us in – you need the diversity and we have a different worldview than you
Yes, we lack experience. Yes, we sometimes don’t know what we are talking about, and we haven’t encountered a lot of the harsh realities of life that make charity hard. But we are the generation of the Internet, called “digital natives,” and you are the immigrants. So come learn our language and learn from us. Start to be curious about what young people are up to, and I guarantee it will pay off. You should have one person on your board under 30! It’s an important diversity issue, especially if the under 30 bracket is the constituency you serve or the volunteer base you work with.
Understand how you communicate: We don’t make enough yet to have a tax write-off
I don’t make enough money to take the time to write donations off my taxes. In fact, a lot of people don’t. I really don’t need a receipt! So ask yourself, how do you invite us in without the most popular incentives that many nonprofits use, like a tax deduction? People give money when they see people moving. If you get 100 people out to volunteer, the money will come. Social media is not the answer, don’t believe the hype. Social media is a tool to gather people in a place. You can’t replace an encounter with the poor with social media and expect success. You can’t replace the feeling provided in philanthropic giving with a donation button on a website, it’s merely a window. The transformation of character will not happen over Twitter.
If you are still wondering why the Occupy Movement started, it’s because young people lack power – as was the case with the Arab Spring and movements in other places around the world. If you want young people to play ball, share power. Let them in, and let them help you raise money.