Mutual Consideration: How to Integrate the Next Generation
By Chris Rurik
The Russell Family Foundation
I recently attended two gatherings – the Confluence Philanthropy annual conference and the Council on Foundations 2013 Family Philanthropy Conference – where an emergent next generation of philanthropists seemed to be on everyone’s minds. As a member of this loosely defined phalanx of change-bringers, this intrigued me. Is the older generation of family-based philanthropists excited? Are they nervous? Do they understand us? Do they want us? I heard no clear answer to any of these questions.
A byproduct of the next generation’s maturation and education is a conceptual return to the fundamentals of change making. While becoming integrated into our foundation’s way of work, I had to start with the basics – the mechanics of philanthropy. How does a grant work? What’s happening with our investments? These questions quickly led me to a deeper, more personal vein. Why are we making grants? Why do we have a foundation? Why has my family evolved like this? Having reached the very foundation (pardon the pun) of my family’s version of philanthropy, and yet to be entrenched in years of practice, I am able to speculate about our foundation’s role in a future that seems up for grabs.
For a generation raised to believe that we can do anything, asking why things work the way they do – as if society is a moldable human invention – is completely natural. Necessary. For example, a session at the Confluence conference detailed how the large, dissatisfied, Occupy-influenced segment of my generation envisions a new world economy that allows sustainable, equitable existence for all. A triple bottom line will replace financial-only measurement. Fifty-year impacts will replace quarter-by-quarter analysis. Transparency and radical democracy will be fundamental components. The conversation had a definite radical tinge (questioning even the capitalistic system in which foundations thrive) that exemplifies my generation’s inclination to approach problems at a fundamental level. This kind of thinking is not just youthful idealism. It is the type of orthogonal thinking that drives creative invention.
But in a society and philanthropic sector organized around established ways of thinking and doing, how can this young, creative perspective be integrated? Is integration practical? (I say yes.) Will it topple things? (I say yes, but only the things that deserve toppling.) It seems to me that the crux of the multi-generational integration lies at the intersection of education and consideration. The older generation, as educators and role models, must not come across as know-it-alls, must not answer questions dismissively, and must not assume that their approach is unassailable. The next generation, as pupils and change-makers, must listen first, ask questions second, and offer opinions third. Humility and open ears on both sides are crucial.
It is a dynamic process, integrating the voices of the next generation into philanthropy, with plenty of potential for missteps. What parent hasn’t seen the immaturity of their children? What student hasn’t questioned their parents’ lifestyle? But if a mutual commitment to patience and consideration underlies the process, it will be nothing but healthy as new skepticism and creativity reshape the way things are done.
Next week, in a follow-up to this post, I will discuss how the evolution of family values and priorities, which vary as much within generations as between them, can be cultivated.