The next generation of philanthropists: Foundations find value in youth engagement

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Before 24-year-old Stephanie Wood heads to Australia in February to begin her medical studies, she needs to oversee an important responsibility: co-chairing the 5G Fund: Accelerate granting committee. An initiative of the Lawson Foundation, the 5G Fund is specifically designed to engage the younger generation. Youth engagement has been a priority of the Toronto-based family foundation — with a focus on the wellbeing of children and youth — since its inception. But, gearing up to celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2016, the foundation took an additional step to connect with this specific demographic by introducing a fund managed by the fifth generation for the fifth generation.

“We were trying to come up with meaningful and actionable way to engage fifth generation family members,” explains Amanda Mayer, communications and governance manager and the other co-chair of the 5G Fund. After inquiring into the interests of their millennial constituents, the unanimous response was running a grant initiative of their own. So, once the board approved a sum of funds — $20,000 per year — the first funding call was launched. Moving forward, twice a year $1,000 to $3,000 in micro-grants will be provided to help accelerate an initiative that is either youth-led, actively supported by young Canadians or that will have a positive impact on youth. Each call will have a theme decided on by youth members (the first was educational with a focus on youth and mental health issues).

Finding ways to connect with millennials has become a popular concern for many these days — be it employers, volunteer organizations or educational institutions. And foundations are not any different. As an important segment of current and prospective members, donors or the general public, young people have made their way onto priority lists. And the payoffs can be significant.

Engaging the younger generation benefits everyone

For the Lawson Foundation, a youth priority has both external and internal objectives. It strongly believes in the power of philanthropy and the contribution it can make to important issues in Canada, says Mayer. Supporting younger generations is consistent with its mission and ensures future generations remain involved which is vital to its long-term future. “They can develop a pool of potential new members who at some point may want to join a committee or board,” Mayer explains. “Engagement is also about succession planning and ensuring strong family ties.” This new fund is only one of mulitiple initiatives it runs with a youth focus. There’s also an apprenticeship program that encourages the younger generation to attend board and committee meetings to get a feel for the governance model and how it works. Promoting youth participation helps younger generations become more knowledgeable about the foundation and its decision-making process.

Another initiative is focused on the fourth and fifth generations and those under 21, matching personal donations to charities. “It shows that the foundation values the interests of the younger generation,” shares Mayer, adding that the program also gives them an insider view of potential funding areas. What’s more, all members are asked to bring their children to the annual general meeting to hear from grantees and learn about the foundation’s impact firsthand. “Not only is it motivating, it can help connect families,” Mayer says of the ongoing tradition. As for Wood, you could say she was groomed for her job as co-chair since, from a young age, she had an education and exposure that certainly came in handy. “I was led into it by example and grew up attending family events,” she says. When it came time to involve the fifth generation by taking on a bigger role, she looked to it as a great opportunity to learn about philanthropy, while connecting with distant relatives. “It was a perfect combination,” says Wood.

Still, the learning curve was intense for the co-lead of this new, impactful initiative. Her duties involved helping to create a structure for the youth committee, determining areas to donate to and what the grants would look like - and everything in between. “I’ve seen the back end of what goes into running foundation and there’s so much work,” she says. “It’s been a huge responsibility but it’s been really exciting,” Wood enthuses.

To do their job right, the young committee has had to do their homework to ensure their decisions come from an informed standpoint, she adds. Sifting through applications and choosing a grantee hasn’t been easy but the experience will have far-reaching consequences.

A foundation of their own

Elaine Ho, chair person of the Richmond Youth Foundation — a branch of the Richmond Community Foundation — agrees. With a mandate of fostering the creativity and innovative ideas of Richmond’s upcoming leaders, the foundation provides grants to youth with community project ideas that would benefit the city. Ho, a fourth year student of marketing and business technology management at Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, has been involved with the 10-year-old youth foundation for five years. Her responsibilities include overseeing and fundraising for an endowment fund — whose interest-generated grants and scholarships are initiated and supported by youth between 15 and 25 years of age in the Richmond community.

She also organized a Benefit Brunch — where professionals from various industries are invited to network and connect with youth — and a youth competition that encourages entrepreneurship. What’s more, with a greater internal focus this year, Ho oversees a variety of events and workshops to engage youth on an array of subjects - from leadership training, event planning and media relations to working with Photoshop. “We want to make it valuable for people inside the foundation,” she says.

This Richmond Youth Foundation was started 10 years ago by the founder of the community foundation to respond to a perceived gap in activities and grants geared to the younger group. Though run mostly independently, Ho meets with her “parent organization” once a month, while youth often help out at the community foundation's events, a collaboration that can prove helpful to both organizations.

Overcoming common challenges

Of course, engaging with younger generations comes with its own challenges. For Ho, trying to coordinate activities for a wide-ranging group — representing very people at very different life stages — hasn’t been easy. Ensuring everyone’s availability and that they’re on the same page isn’t either. Getting the word out about the organization and its activities has proven equally challenging at times. What’s more, though youth are very engaged initially, “the long-term commitment is more difficult. So I want to show them the value-add to engage them for longer term,” explains Ho.

Wood and Mayer have faced some obstacles too. With many foundation members scattered across the globe, maintaining ongoing communication so that everyone has a say with decision-making, is one. Technology has played a big part in keeping it all together, and Mayer points out that virtual meetings and webinars that have become the norm, along with an online platform for grant applications and a dedicated Facebook page that keeps conversations flowing. They also work hard to ensure that members not residing in the country are kept abreast of issues central to the Canadian landscape so that informed and responsible decisions are consistently made.

But, say the co-chairs, the payoffs are invaluable. The leadership and organizing skills Wood has honed in her position, for example, has strengthened her capacity to take on future opportunities. She’s learned the importance of staying organized and getting everyone on board and making sure their voices are heard. Ho feels similarly. In her second year as chair, she’s feeling even stronger this time around as her ability to guide others and lead teams has improved. Part of it came down to effective collaboration and learning to clarify expectations, she says.

“A lot of the time someone is interested in [getting involved with] the foundation because it looks good on the resume but they have to realize there is work they have to do,” she says. Making sure there’s two-way communication right off the top about those expectations ensures they feel less overwhelmed later on. Mayer would concur. “You need to think about the audience and the best way to engage them in a way that interests them,” she says, a good tip for connecting with younger generations.

It’s important to listen closely to their views and continue to find ways to engage them so you don’t lose any initial momentum. And keep in mind that not everyone will wants to be engaged. So don’t pressure them. “It has to be a two-way street because there’s learning on both sides.” Don’t be afraid to experiment, adds Ho. “There’s bound to be times you make mistakes but try different things and see if it works and if it doesn’t we’re all learning.”

And that includes the foundations, who are finding increasing value in their youth focus. “A lot of foundations are run by older members with older mindsets,” says Wood. Infusing a foundation with a fresh, younger perspective can only lead to positive results. “Millennials think differently and engage differently and those experiences can help the foundation be better at what it does,” agrees Mayer. “There’s learning and benefits on both sides.”

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

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