What Can a Group for Young People in Philanthropy Achieve?

Kayin Scholtz, uMncedi Project Lead at DG Murray Trust sparked the formation of a group of young people in philanthropy.

The quality of interventions (results or actions) is determined by the quality of thinking. The quality of thinking is often determined by the quality of relationships.”- Quote from 2022 IPASA Symposium

Finding connection

As a young (ish) person venturing into philanthropy in the peculiar online era of 2020, I gradually began to feel a seeping sense of uncertainty. I had spent years working in education focused non-profits, but now I was unmoored from a safe haven and struggling to find my community. After conversations with colleagues, I realised I was not alone in this experience. Each one of us was on our own journey of discovery. Each one of us was weighed down by challenges that we had not yet realised were shared. Speaking about these experiences made us feel connected and liberated. When a problem is collective, what at first seemed a feature of the environment can be seen with new eyes – it can be seen as a challenge that can be solved.

The Young (ish) People in Philanthropy (YiPP) group grew out of this intuition. It began as a small group of young people (age 25 to 40) mostly working in management positions in philanthropic organisations. The group started as an informal gathering of colleagues and friends, focused initially on building relationships between people within the sector. The tone of the group was playful, and an expression of vulnerability was encouraged. Professional meetings sometimes encourage performance, but emotional safety is required for real collaboration and deep thinking. So, I was thrilled to notice when people felt comfortable saying “I don’t know” and describing what they struggled with. As we began to meet more regularly, the group found its groove, with different people volunteering to lead on topics of particular interest or expertise.

Our group discussions have helped us to step back from our individual experiences and to identify what is common. Through discussion, we can take a broader view to see beyond our teams, our organisations and even our national challenges. This is the work that organisations like the Independent Philanthropy Association (IPASA) nationally, and the Centre for Effective Philanthropy, and the Effective Altruism communities internationally do.  The experiences we were describing in our own organisations sometimes reflected a growing professional discourse. In our direct experiences we have noticed how difficult philanthropic processes can for grantees. Some of the issues we’ve observed are mirrored in the movement around “trust-based philanthropy”. By sharing our experiences, we can begin to name them, to understand how they come about, and to imagine how to change them. At times, these learnings can reflect existing “best practice”, however, at times there are novel insights that are particular to our specific organisations.

Thoughtful conversations

The group meets online monthly, usually with five to eight young people from different grant-making organisations, mostly IPASA members. During each session, a group member volunteers to present on a specific topic, such as futurism in grant making, project management, or grant making from the perspective of the grantee – topics each of us have expertise or interest in. Even though the topics of discussion are weighty, the tone of the conversation can be light-hearted, easy, and playful. While the information presented is helpful, the relationships being developed are an important reason for meeting.

The outcomes of peer learning include insights on a wide and diverse range of topics:

  • Highly practical suggestions on how to manage performance in teams: “Consider using performance incentives more for teams than individuals, with performance measured based on highly quantifiable metrics. Appraisal rubrics may be better structured as more qualitative inquiries.”
  • The importance of futurism in grant making: “Donors have existing processes for strategy, these tend to focus more clearly on the world as it exists, and the process described helps to more clearly frame opportunities which may not yet be clearly visible.”
  • Descriptions of bad grant making practices to avoid: “Interference in grantee strategy/implementation using protection of the philanthropic organisation to advance their personal opinion.”

Any group needs to demonstrate value to its members in order to justify its continued existence. Attendance and attention are a mark of prioritisation in a busy world with competing demands on our time. From a lightly turbulent start, the bones of a community of young(ish) people have begun to form. Relationships have begun to stretch outside of our brief meetings, and frank and honest discussions have begun to broaden our imaginations of what is possible within our organisations. As we continue to walk this road together, this group might just help develop relationships that enable deep collaboration, information sharing, thought leadership and activism.

Fluid intelligence at work

This group is one attempt to enable leadership among younger people in the philanthropy sector, but there are other opportunities to do this. Developmentally, younger people generally have an abundance of fluid intelligence (the ability to process new information and solve problems), while older people tend have more crystal intelligence (general knowledge). This suggests that getting the best from young people includes sharing information, while also creating opportunities for leadership and novel solutions to problems which young people may be more likely to realise. For donor organisations wanting to invest in the development of young people, strong orientation programmes, mentorship, and creating opportunities for internal leadership (i.e., through working groups) can be helpful. The tenacity, drive and delight of younger people are an opportunity for novel thought leadership. It is also an incredible source of potential energy for improving and innovating grant making practices, and IPASA may benefit from intentionally channelling this energy. The embers of this potential are burning in this group, which in moments, connects, deepens thinking, and generates enthusiasm for change.

Human progress is collective, not individual. In the philanthropy sector it can be difficult to find community to build this collective wisdom and to deepen our insights. While philanthropy is broadly nestled within the development sector, the work can be highly distinct from that done by implementing organisations. Philanthropic teams often consist of a small number of individuals, making it challenging to access resources that facilitate learning from past experiences. When we are disconnected, we can imagine our challenges to be unique, or problems to be huge and unsolvable. However, in spaces created by IPASA, and the Young (ish) People in Philanthropy, we can bring together sparky humans, and watch as they get fired up.

Philanthropy and the future

Philanthropic organisations have the imposing goal of trying to improve human wellbeing, with highly constrained resources against immense human need. Increasingly, philanthropic organisations recognise this challenge and take on the role of strategic investors aiming to catalysing change. The world of 2033 will likely be meaningfully different to the one we see before us today. And yet when we look to our strategic plans, we may not always be fully set up to make use of, or indeed drive these changes. To meet the moment, we must utilise the dynamism, technological insight, and future orientation that young people have. Young people have the potential to seed new life in the philanthropic landscape, reimagine philanthropic practices, embrace emerging technologies, collaborative strategies, and sustainable solutions. When given space to grow, young people may pioneer a culture of bold experimentation, allowing philanthropy to bloom into a more deft, responsive, and impactful organisations, addressing the pressing issues of our time. The resources we need to respond to our challenges exist in philanthropy already, and they can be built upon. This group can help to ignite this potential. However, if we hope to create, and not simply respond to the future of South Africa, we must find ways to get better at harnessing the insights and fire of young people.

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