Growing a new demographic among givers

The momentum being built up by the fledgling "cool rich kids" movement is resulting in a slowly shifting demographic of dedicated donors, according to those who work in the world of social-change philanthropy.

Jeremy Burton, associate executive director of the New York-based Jewish Funders Network, says 18- to 35-year-olds now represent roughly 15 percent of the group's membership.

The JFN is a community of grantmakers involved in strategic giving to both Jewish and secular causes, with an emphasis on the ancient, Jewish version of social-change philanthropy, tzedakah.

(The concept of tzedakah revolves around a pursuit of justice and the expenditure of personal and financial resources to permit people to escape poverty and become self-sufficient.)

Burton explains that JFN was started 10 years ago by middle-aged Jews, but that close to a quarter of the board members now include people in their 20s and 30s.

That's a radical shift, he says, because the boards of philantrophic and Jewish organizations have traditionally been populated by older generations.

At the Third Wave Foundation in New York, the entire board is run by people under age 35, says director Vivien Labaton.

As an "activist philantrophic organization," Third Wave focuses on addressing and funding the issues facing young women between the ages of 15 and 30.

The donations and personal involvement of young people with wealth has been essential to the success of the foundation, Ms. Labaton explains.

This year, the 5,000-member-strong foundation plans to give away more than $100,000 in grant money.

A Territory Resource (ATR), a social-change foundation serving the Pacific Northwest, has noticed a slow but steady increase in the numbers of younger people who are willing to commit to annual memberships, which involve a minimum donation of $1,000, or 1 percent of net annual income. The 22-year-old organization gave away nearly $1 million in grants last year.

Janis Strout, executive director of the Seattle-based foundation, has been working on "progressive" philanthropy since the 1970s. She credits the New York-based Funding Exchange Network with helping to jump-start an earlier wave of social-change philanthropy, which was able to harness the inherited wealth of 20-somethings to start such funding organizations as the San Francisco-based Vanguard Foundation and the Boston-area Haymarket People's Fund.

But now, Ms. Strout says, her organization is not only working with people with inherited wealth, but with those who have benefited from the new technology sector. "Seattle and many parts of the Northwest are creating vast amounts of wealth. A number of these people ... do not want to put a Band-Aid on social issue," she says.

Social services and other, more traditional charitable causes have an important place in philanthropy, says Strout, but the younger generations of funders are often looking toward funding efforts that support "sustainability for humanity and for the planet."

Strout adds that younger donors are looking at the world of philanthropy and at issues of social justice in ways that are different from the generations that came of age in the 1960s and 70s. That presents foundations with a new challenge: how best to incorporate the perspectives of younger funders, and how to retain their interest and donations.

ATR's Youth Fund started in 1997 to begin working with an even younger pool of present and potential members, including the children of ATR donors. The Youth Fund, consisting of 10- to 18-year-olds, meets on a regular basis to raise funds, plan site visits, and distribute grants to community-based organizations.

Similarly, the JFN has responded to its new members by setting up a Younger Funders Working Group to provide those in their 20s and 30s with a place to discuss their own ideas about philanthropy.

"If you give people the space to pursue their passions and help them succeed in their own philanthropic passions," says Burton, "you'll see them stay on."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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