In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Katherine Lorenz, president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. In late 2012, Forbes Magazine named Katherine “One to Watch” as an up-and-coming face in philanthropy. She also serves on the board of directors of the Environmental Defense Fund, the Institute for Philanthropy, Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, and the Association of Small Foundations.
Nell: There is a lot of interest in the next generation of philanthropists—Millennials who stand to inherit the largest wealth transfer in history. How do you think this next generation of philanthropists will be different than their predecessors and why?
Katherine: I do believe this next generation of philanthropists will be different than their predecessors. People tend to become interested in a specific issue or cause based on a personal experience—something that impacts their lives profoundly. It is only natural that this next generation of philanthropists will do their philanthropy differently; they grew up in a world that looked very different than the world their parents and grandparents grew up in. Things like 9/11 and social media were formative experiences for Millennials, so it should not be surprising that they will think differently than previous generations—just as the Great Depression had such an impact on the way their grandparents lived their lives and did their philanthropy.
A recent study by 21/64 and the Johnson Center on Philanthropy about next gen donors showed that this generation is more clearly driven by impact and effectiveness in their philanthropy than generations before them. They also want to be more hands-on in their engagement with an issue or an organization—they want to serve on boards or get involved in a more concrete way than just writing a check. They look at financial resources as only one tool in the toolbox, and seek to bring many other resources at their disposal to create change in the world.
Nell: Do you believe that next gen donors will actually divert more money to organizations that can prove they’ve created social change? Are we going to see the needle move in terms of funneling more money to proven social change efforts under their watch?
Katherine: I am not sure if we will actually see Millennial donors divert more resources to organizations that can prove they are creating social change. While I do believe this generation will ask for more metrics, and want to know the impact they are having more than previous generations, I think this group will also be open to taking more risks as they search for innovative solutions. In taking more risks, there will be more failure but also potential for more significant social change if the risk pays off. In sum, I think next gen donors will risk more and fail more than previous generations, although this should create more innovative methods that address the issues they care about.
Nell: What is your view on how family philanthropy evolves over time? For example, your grandparents’ generation’s understanding of and opinions about climate change are quite different than views about climate change now. How do changing views affect a philanthropic approach over time?
Katherine: I think that family foundations evolve with generational changes more in how they address issues than in what they address. Often a family holds very strong beliefs and values, and those are passed down from generation to generation. For example, my grandfather funded sustainability issues for more than 40 years, primarily funding large institutions or creating new institutions, and trying to bring businesses into the conversation. While climate change was an issue he cared about, the larger picture of how the earth will sustain a growing population with finite resources drove him. Those values and interests are acutely present in his children and grandchildren, although how we do philanthropy to address these issues is slightly different.
With more science available, it is clear that climate change is very clearly the biggest threat to a sustainable planet, and we are using different tools than my grandfather did to address the issue—more grassroots organizations, more policy and advocacy work, and less of a focus on big institutions. Our values around this topic very much came from my grandfather’s passion, but our approach in addressing the issue is quite different. I think a difference in generational approach is common in family foundations.
Nell: How do you think philanthropy could be more effective and better help nonprofits create change? What shifts in the philanthropic landscape are you particularly excited about seeing?
Katherine: I think one of the biggest problems in the non-profit sector stems from the relationship between the donors and their grantees. Donors often ask grantees to do special reporting or won’t pay for overhead expenses or ask them to do something outside of their current strategy. Grantees are often compelled to do these things in order to obtain funding, although sometimes they spend more time trying to please donors than doing the work at hand. Donors have unrealistic expectations of grantees, and non-profit leaders usually spend more time fundraising than working on the issue they were funded to address.
I would really like to see donors and grantees operate more like partners, and less like one is doing a favor for the other in exchange for funding. I would like to see donors fundamentally shift the conversation from a focus on lowering overhead costs to a focus on maximizing social benefit. Who cares if overhead is high if the organization is actually making a dent in the issue they’re trying to solve?
One shift I see in the philanthropy world that excites me is the growing number of groups that exist to help donors be more effective. Donor education is growing in popularity. Inheritors are realizing that doing philanthropy well is a serious job and requires training. As the field of donor education grows and formalizes, I think we will see donors doing a better job of allocating resources for social benefit.
Photo Credit: Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation