Wishful Thinking

Late last year, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University released a worrisome report. Giving by younger Americans, researchers found, has markedly declined in just the last decade and a half. Under 40 percent of households headed by someone under 40 now give any money to charity. 

These results were anticipated by sociologist Jean Twenge, who examined 40 years of surveys of twelfth graders and students entering college and found that giving patterns reached “an all-time low in 2015.”  Young people born after 1995 may feel like they are “dreaming big and including an altruistic vision in those dreams,” she writes in her recent book iGen, but they are not making those dreams a reality. Indeed, few of today’s young people “express empathy for those unlike themselves”—which raises the possibility that philanthropy in America could take a nosedive when this generation enters the national driver’s seat. 

For a completely opposite perspective, Sharna Goldseker and Michael Moody claim in Generation Impact that we are about to enter “a new Golden Age of Giving.” One root of their excitement is the simple fact that young Americans are going to inherit a lot of money from their parents. A 2014 Boston College study found that there will be $59 trillion of wealth transferred across generations between 2007 and 2061. The authors breathlessly predict that millennials will channel much of this largesse into personal giving, and in the process “revolutionize giving,” “channel their historic potential,” “forge bold new paths,” and “be the most significant philanthropists ever.”

If you can get past the hype, there is some revealing material in this book. Interviews the authors conducted with a number of young monied donors produce the most telling information. Much of it, alas, is delusional.

One theme uncovered in these discussions is impatience. While this is not a new trait in action-oriented donors, today’s young philanthropists are operating with a markedly different time frame. Many of them have made their money quickly and have arrived at success at a very young age. Even those who have inherited their money, like Alexander Soros and Justin Rockefeller (both interviewed in the book), are gaining access to resources earlier than counterparts in decades past.

Millennials are also showing little interest in established charities, preferring to find or start their own group they can strongly influence. “If I work with a small organization, I can make a significant impact,” as one donor told the authors. Younger philanthropists believe they have valuable insights as well as money to share. And they are often willing to blur the lines between nonprofit and for-profit ventures.

As one example of those impulses coming together, the authors profile Hadi Partovi, an Iranian-American entrepreneur who made money as an early investor in Facebook, Dropbox, and Airbnb. He started giving by writing checks through a donor-advised fund, then started his own organization to accomplish philanthropic goals. With 50 employees, Code.org aims to bring computer-science instruction to every school in the country.

The book contains a good deal of well-intentioned naiveté and smugness. For example, “Next-gen donors…find many faults in old-school philanthropy, the greatest of which being that many of our most troubling social problems persist despite decades of philanthropic giving.” There is no acknowledgment that, to borrow a phrase, the poor will always be with us. These young people seem driven by the notion that human beings and society are perfectible—if only we can put the right policies and resources and brain implants in place.

This certitude extends to the book’s characterization of the past as less politically active and progressive than the present. “The desire to find strategies that address root causes and result in system changes leads some next-gen donors to fund advocacy, policy-reform efforts, and movement organizing, especially at the grassroots level. They see previous generations of donors as wary of such giving in part because they wanted to avoid sticking their necks out and taking a public stand with their giving.”

Okay, wipe that smile off your face.

These young donors are said to be braver than those who preceded them: To draw more attention to their own causes “many in the next gen want to be ‘louder’ about their giving, whether in social media or otherwise.” They are nobler as well, lacking any interest in giving “to gain social status or participate in the right social circles.”

No word on when they’re going to turn off the “like” buttons on their social media.

We’re betting this next generation will prove no better or worse in motivation than their parents or grandparents. And if the harder research cited at the opening of this essay proves out, their actual behavior may end up being a lot less generous. No matter what the rich young Americans interviewed for this book may proclaim, real-life practice is what matters.