Next Gen: How do you perceive wealth?

You may have received an inheritance some time ago. You may know that money is coming in the future. Or you may have earned your money. No matter the timing or the means, the key philanthropic question for the next generation is: how do you perceive your wealth?

Is it a burden? A resource? Something to be hidden lest you be accosted for donations? Something to acknowledge publicly as a powerful lever to encourage good works?

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A numbers story

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Two tech billionaires and an entrepreneur walk into a bar.

The billionaires, both men, fall into a bidding war to determine who will get the first option on new technology developed by the entrepreneur, who is a woman and nearly a generation younger than them.

She, possessing a philanthropic heart as well as a keen business sense, has vowed to sell the technology only if it is used to deliver positive social change along with a financial return.

As the bidding rises, the voices of the men get louder and louder. The mood grows more and more aggressive. The entrepreneur looks ill-at-ease, but the billionaires don’t notice. Finally, the bartender interrupts.

“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. Why don’t you take it outside.”

He brings out a softball and three old baseball gloves from underneath the bar and puts them on the counter.

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#childrennotsoldiers

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A man stands quietly against a wall. His hands are bound. He indicates the chest pocket of his t-shirt with his eyes.

A man with an AK-47 pulls a photo from the pocket. Children, nephews, nieces, grandparents, uncles, aunts – all squeezed together so they can fit in the frame. A celebration of some sort.

“Please, no blood on this,” says the bound man, his voice calm.

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In philanthropy, as in most human endeavors, lasting change is elusive.

But when donors act to replace local dependency with local capacity, they can empower a locally-led and stakeholder-supported evolution of service. Responsive growth can become part of a project’s DNA. And change, fed by local needs and local dreams, becomes both durable and flexible.

Donors may well draw inspiration from an African example. The town of Makutano, Kenya “transformed itself from a poor, inaccessible and arid ‘outback’ into a thriving hotbed of people-led development,” according to a 2011 report.*

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How naming opportunities helped build one of the best libraries in the world*

* Over the course of 160 years.

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The New York Public Library is the second biggest public library in the United States. It serves 18 million patrons a year with 88 branches, four major research libraries and 51 million items in its collection. Only the Library of Congress holds more books.

Scholars revere its treasures of knowledge and history. Ordinary citizens use it every day as a source of information and entertainment. Even tourists know its trademark marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, which flank the entrance of the main branch. But few people know that the library owes its existence to philanthropists – many of whom opted for naming opportunities.

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New York Public Library philanthropy naming opportunity andrew carnegie John Jacob Astor John Lenox Samuel J. Tilden Stephen A. Schwarzman Sandra Priest Rose Frederick Phineas Rose Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman

Are you data-driven?

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In business, politics and philanthropy, being data-driven has become a point of pride.

Leaders parade decision-making as rational and strategic because they “have the numbers” to support it. The tech revolution with its miraculous information-processing seems to support the idea of data as king.

But any software engineer can tell you that information is completely dependent on context. Numbers are meaningless unless there’s a logical narrative frame to make sense of them.

So is information the “king of kings” or just another useful servant?

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Giving to encourage giving

The biggest private foundation in Alaska was developed by Elmer Rasmuson who was born, the son of missionaries, in the tiny village of Yakutat.

Rasmuson, who owned the National Bank of Alaska before it was sold to Wells Fargo, believed that “a community that invests in itself is a healthy community.”

So when the financial crisis of 2008 hit, the Rasmuson Foundation ($616 million endowment) gave grants to help communities start their own local funds.

It also redoubled its efforts to encourage individual Alaskans to give.

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6 Steps to Change the World

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I read a lovely piece by Landon Thomas Jr. in today’s New York Times. It  profiled billionaire Michael Bloomberg and his particular brand of giving.

His foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has mounted an impressive collaborative campaign to reduce smoking cigarettes in Turkey and other countries around the world. But what impressed me most was his approach to philanthropy.

According to his foundation, here are Bloomberg’s six steps to “making the world a better place”:

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This summer John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Patty Russell (of FSG) wrote a bellwether piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review . It stated that “committed theorists and practitioners” were often “disappointed” with results from two decades of strategic philanthropy.

In other words (my words), the mental framework behind much big philanthropy today is worse than toast. It’s day-old bread.

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Being open about philanthropy provides an opportunity for family members to learn about a heritage of giving.

For parents and grandparents in particular, family philanthropy can present an attractive combination of present and future. A meaningful experience with loved ones can be shared in the here-and-now while a legacy of giving is built for future generations.

Of course, that goal may not be straightforward to achieve. But opening lines of communication - being ready to listen as well as talk - is an indication of respect and an invitation to connect.

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