Millennials and the Tech Donor:
Some Very Encouraging News

millennials and philanthropy

Last month, I had the pleasure of moderating two really interesting panel discussions at the CASE Corporate and Foundation Relations Conference in San Francisco. While the overarching subjects related to raising money from the corporate sector, both panels offered a window into the thinking of two groups that are in the process of revolutionizing our understanding of philanthropy: tech donors and Millennials. The information that was presented offers real hope that philanthropic giving will not only be maintained in the years to come, but will grow and become an ever-more important element of our society.

In this blog, I want to focus on the first panel, which was entitled “Getting Inside the Head of the Tech Donor.” The second panel on the Corporate 1% Pledge will be discussed in a subsequent piece. I was very fortunate in my first panel to have two amazing young professionals as panelists. Ernestine Fu is a venture capitalist based in San Francisco. She founded a nonprofit while still in high school that brings high school musicians to perform in senior centers and homeless shelters. While at Stanford, she co-authored a book with a senior Stanford faculty member on public service. She also interned in the venture capital firm that she joined upon graduation, and at 20 was named Silicon Valley’s Youngest Venture Capitalist by Forbes. In her spare time, she is completing a Ph.D. in Engineering at Stanford.

Joseph Huang is a young entrepreneur whose company, WiFiSLAM received venture funding from Ernestine’s firm. Joseph studied at a large Canadian public university and came to Stanford to do his graduate work. He left to follow his entrepreneurial muse and has seen considerable success. He is also totally committed to public service and has positioned his company to give back even now in its early stages of development.

Both individuals are in their early-to-mid-twenties.

We had a lively conversation in front of a group of around 50 development professionals. Both Ernestine and Joseph are incredibly committed to giving back to society and they see philanthropy and volunteerism as something that defines them as human beings as well as successful professionals. They have thought long and hard about how to make a difference and how to fit philanthropy into their lives in meaningful ways. They believe, moreover, that their perspective is widely shared in the tech community among Millennials and that organizations that promote civic engagement, public service and philanthropy are much more attractive as employers than those that do not.

While each has loyalty to their alma mater, and Ernestine has been very active with her class giving program, they both have a giving philosophy that is less-focused on institutions than on impact. They want to feel that their giving makes a difference in the world, and they want to engage with organizations and to provide help and support beyond money.

Each recognizes that there is a fine line between engagement and trying to tell established organizations how to do their work, but expertise and the ability to lend that expertise is seen as an important piece of any philanthropic contribution, particularly at this early stage in their professional lives.

I found it interesting that they saw technology as a means for expanding philanthropy but not an end in itself. Both saw crowdfunding, for example, as largely a marketing activity more than a philanthropic one. At the same time, they wanted to see organizations using technology and availing themselves of the expertise of tech donors, to expand their reach and to be more effective at communicating a message of service.

The conversation kept coming back to impact and the desire to use philanthropy and volunteerism as a way to create a better world. These young entrepreneurs do not accept many of the traditional barriers that have been placed around philanthropy in the past. They do not see that international boundaries should limit thinking; they want interdisciplinary approaches to problems of all types; they want to see organizations working collaboratively and in partnership with individual and corporate donors; they have little patience for bureaucracy, red tape and small thinking.

I came away from this discussion full of hope for the future. The Millennial Generation knows they have a responsibility to fix many things in society, and they can’t imagine a life without social commitment. They are going to put grant recipients and development professionals through a lot of turmoil and change as they work to reshape thinking about giving, but I feel confident that what is to come will surpass even the most golden periods of philanthropy in our history and it will happen on an international scale.

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