By Nathaniel James, Exponent Philanthropy
Originally featured on GMNsight, a professional journal written for and by the members of Grants Managers Network
In philanthropy, it seems everyone is talking about collaboration. The more we aspire to work together, the more we find that effective collaborations require patience, practice, and sometimes teach hard lessons. Earlier this year, Michael Moody wrote that aspiring collaborative donors “face distinct challenges related to their own capacity and power [and] their tolerance for risk and transparency.”
So, whereas we understand the rewards of collaboration to be high, collaboration is still hard. But what if this is just a phase for philanthropy?
This summer, I participated in the international Youth Philanthropy Connect Conference, aptly titled “Building Tomorrow, Together: The Future of Philanthropy,” and I observed an ease of relationship-building that could one day transform our field. There I saw the future of philanthropy, those in the 8- to 21-year-old set for whom collaboration is a central part of who they are and how their first experiences unfold.
Over five years, the conference has grown to 58 participating organizations and 180 participants. During the launch presentation on the new YouthGiving.org site, we learned that the global youth philanthropy field has distributed over $15 million in grants since 2001, making it a distinct new entrant into the larger nonprofit sector and one whose influence is just starting to be felt.
Among the conference participants, I saw collaboration at play along at least four dimensions: interpersonal, intergenerational, with grantseeking nonprofits, and across socioeconomic differences.
Although I’m not an expert in child development, I think it’s easier for young people to collaborate. They are forming their identities, constantly learning, and, as so many of their experiences are new, aren’t burdened by as many preconceptions and prejudices as their older counterparts. Plus, school days mean working together and playing in constantly changing groups, so improvisation comes more easily too.
I saw this play out as I facilitated a session in which the youth were the expert trainers using the Teen Philanthropy Cafe Readers Exponent Philanthropy co-created with YPC. I was impressed by how fluidly they worked with one another, including across a significant age range. The way they shared responsibility seemed effortless, and they were able to provide a strong session even when the roster of panelists changed the day before we presented. Theirs was a collective effort, and they made my job as a facilitator easy.
Given that very few youth are fiduciaries right now, youth philanthropy is necessarily intergenerational philanthropy. Perhaps the earliest approach to youth philanthropy is the youth advisory board model that emerged in family foundations. I won’t be surprised to see today’s youth philanthropists make some stunning changes to the practice as they take the reins, and I expect that they will do so with deep respect and a feeling of connection to what came before, because they began by working with their elders.
Including a real grantmaking process in a conference program is a big challenge, but represents the kind of expertise YPC is developing. At this year’s conference, YPC partnered with the Orange County Community Foundation’s ACT Anaheim program to gather grant proposals and identify nonprofit leaders willing to present to giving circles composed of youth conference participants. Meanwhile, YPC provided a curriculum that included pre-work and required the conference giving circles to develop grantmaking guidelines, process grant applications, and distribute $5,000, using Foundant technology to manage the process entirely online.
In addition to the giving circle, YPC partnered with three nonprofits, including a project with the Enable Community Foundation to assemble 3-D printed hands for people worldwide who need upper-limb prosthetics.
I can see how this generation of philanthropists will be able to take their experiences of working closely with grantseeking nonprofits into their future work, breaking down the power dynamic in ways the field is still struggling to do.
I have been to my fair share of philanthropy conferences, and I believe YPC’s is the most diverse I have seen across any dimension one could name. In fact, much of the youth philanthropy field has made bold progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion, as a matter of purpose and program design. In addition to youth boards from family philanthropy, community foundations such as one in Sacramento are launching youth grantmaking programs that intentionally involve youth from lower-income communities. In models like the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative, grantmaking is also built into classroom curricula and after-school programs around the country, for both K–12 and college populations, bringing young people from every economic background into the field and blurring the lines between giving time and giving treasure.
I can envision a future in which the youth I witnessed will soon enter careers as both philanthropy and nonprofit leaders. Some of those who come from high-income backgrounds will be grant seekers and vice versa. And they will come into those practices with strong ties to people who we currently consider to be working “across the divide” of nonprofit funding.
All in all, I feel very privileged for the opportunity to have participated, however briefly, in the youth philanthropy field. Anyone interested in making philanthropy more collaborative would do well to watch how it develops and to get involved in a supporting role. I am excited about the future these young people will build together and hopeful that we can learn a lot from them today.
Nathaniel James is a program director at Exponent Philanthropy. He leads the Next Gen Fellows Program and Master Juggler Executive Institute, and manages resources on family philanthropy, effectiveness skills, and transition points.