Today’s young Jewish funders are part of a generation of philanthropists that has broken down long-standing hierarchies of knowledge and is seeking advice and inspiration, not just from older generations, but from anyone and everyone with a good idea. The challenge, then, is to find sources and mentors who are trustworthy.
The search for meaning, engagement and actionable information among young Jewish funders, however, is not one limited to the American Jewish public, but rather reflects a broadly shared American reality. Philanthropy communities that want to grow and advance must learn to recognize, honor and serve innovation in thinking and expectations.
There’s a common misunderstanding that next-gen funders are looking for access they haven’t yet earned, but all they really seek is transparency. For decades, new funders have had to be invited to the table, through office suites and board rooms, before they might be privy to the decision-making process. Philanthropists who graduated from college since the turn of the century are too accustomed to the openness of the Internet and social media to be willing to be left in the dark.
Nonprofits that have successfully engaged this generation are those that are open in their dealings, tell potential donors up front about their goals and plans and ask for input in a genuine feedback loop.
Moreover, these organizations understand that young leaders aren’t looking for the mere appearance of engagement, but rather in truly and honestly getting to know the issues they hope to address. Cocktail parties are nice, but the most successful nonprofits are those that let young funders in on the work at hand and give them an entry to participation in the actual work and mission of the nonprofit.
The very openness of 21st-century information can create a different kind of challenge, however. Having grown up at a time of almost instant availability, some young donors might feel that the nonprofits in which they’re interested owe them something, and not vice versa. It’s critical that organizations develop and nurture a sense of mutual obligation, in order to grow participation that’s firmly rooted and ensure that an ever-growing new cohort of funders remains attached to the nonprofit and its goals.
But perhaps most importantly, when I talk to next-gen philanthropists, they invariably express frustration that they don’t have a group of their own peers with which to tackle these questions. It’s vital to find that peer group — people to whom you can turn for good, dependable advice, who will show you the ropes and who, like you, are looking for real engagement with innovative work that both reflects the values of your community and helps ensure that your community can flourish.
It’s also important not to seek innovation for innovation’s sake; we dare not risk losing the wealth of knowledge donors and nonprofits have already accumulated. Innovation can only be a strategy toward a larger goal, such as nurturing Jewish commitment, increasing Jewish literacy or improving the care we provide for our elderly.
Our experience at Slingshot shows that a peer-driven network of young funders is a tremendous asset in bridging the gaps between new donors and groundbreaking organizations. It can create newly relevant opportunities for involvement, and help identify those organizations most likely to reflect both cultural and generational values. The guide we produce annually is designed to clue in donors, volunteers and activists to the most inspiring and innovative nonprofits, projects and programs coming out of the American Jewish community every year.
Seeking out and supporting innovation and the active engagement of donors in their 20s and 30s has proven to be a powerful catalyst for next generation funding — that, too, is why we call ourselves Slingshot — and offers a telling snapshot of shifting trends all across America’s philanthropic landscape. While such efforts will be crucial to the future growth and well-being of my own community — the American Jewish community — they will also be for all Americans.
Will Schneider is executive director of Slingshot, which produces the annual Slingshot Guide.