Youth Volunteerism: 3 Ways Millennials Are Changing Philanthropy

As a millennial who cares deeply about making the world a better place, I’ve been thinking about the ways my generation’s approach to philanthropy differs from older generations. This view has been largely informed by serving on the board of directors for Spark, a non-profit network of young professionals dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls, and to training the next generation of philanthropists.

So, here are three ways that our generation is doing things differently.

1. We care about donating more than just money.

Millennials have lots of ideas, energy, and enthusiasm to help make the world a better place. But we often don’t have a lot of money. To harness this, organizations need to start thinking differently about how and what they ask for from donors.

While financial support is important, we respond well to (and can often add the most value when) philanthropic organizations ask us to engage with them on important questions. Echoing Green, a venture philanthropy fund, leans on millennials to work directly with its social entrepreneurs to think through problems they’re dealing with. My alma matter Pomona College helps young alumni to work with current students interested in pursuing similar careers.

Two years ago, Spark helped Akili Dada – a girl’s leadership and scholarship fund based in Kenya – revise its accounting processes so it could take on larger gifts from institutional donors. One of our members saw a Facebook post requesting volunteers to help Akili Dada revamp their book-keeping, and that's how we got involved.

Akili Dada asked our members for not just financial, but also social capital. We were able to help 35 girls attend high school in Nairobi, and also help Akili Dada transition to QuickBooks so that they were ready to receive larger gifts from the Global Fund for Women and Google.org.

2. We embrace democratic decision-making.

In traditional philanthropic organizations, donors need to trust the board and staff to allocate resources efficiently. The thing is, lots of millennials want to do more than just write a check; we want to be a part of deciding how those funds are allocated.

To help donors feel closer to their gifts, many newer charities are trying allow donors specify which projects they support. Groups like Donors Choose and Kiva have helped lead the way in this effort.

At Spark, we’ve tried to take this philosophy one step further. Our entire grant-making process is run by our Investment Committee, which means that any Spark member is able to participate in choosing grantees and discussing the philosophical direction of the organization. Rather than simply allowing members to select a few organizations on our website, we allow our members to participate in monthly discussions about which organizations show up on the website, and how we pick them.

3. We can be a little irreverent of older generations.

The truth is, really big foundations (think Gates Foundation), established institutions (like Bridgespan) and older philanthropists (such as George Soros) are working hard to make philanthropy more relevant, accountable and effective. But sometimes, we don’t see that progress happening fast enough, and feel like it isn’t relevant for us.  

Within the women’s movement, younger organizations like Spark have been criticized for failing to acknowledge the hard work of our older sisters in paving the way to do our work.  As we continue to find ways to push philanthropic organizations to improve, it’s worth pausing to remember how far we’ve come, thanks in large part to the hard work of older generations. 

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Jenn Wilcox Thomas

Jenn Wilcox is an MBA candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Previously, she was an investment associate at Summit Rock Advisors, an NYC-based investment advisory group that works with US-based families, foundations and endowments. Jenn graduated from Pomona College with a degree in economics. She is passionate about the intersection between the private and social sector, and is very interested in learning and thinking about how companies can earn a financial return while addressing social issues. Jenn serves on the Board of Directors for Spark, a women's economic empowerment non-profit, and chairs SparkNYC. She also serves on the Board of Trustees for Pomona College.

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