FUNDRAISING | Multi-Generational Philanthropy, Part One

publication date: Jun 26, 2024
author/source: Eyre Purkin Bien, CFRE

As a longtime student of people watching, I’ve always had an interest in the inner workings of families. Broadening that notion, I would say that the relationships within fundraising departments are similar to those we typically experience through our families. As such, the dynamics of multi-generations working together in philanthropy presents interesting opportunities and challenges.

Families have leaders, one or two who put the “team” together. Families have seniority, a hierarchy of who comes first, who has more experience, who has new skills, who is the high-level energy, who is more laid back and who rarely has the chance to speak (but when they do!!). How we deal with these differences makes for a functional, or dysfunctional dynamic.

In raising money for worthy causes, we often see this play out between donor and fundraiser. Family multi-generational fundraising is a growing area of interest, as organizations broaden their reach into many different cultures. Family decision-making is not a new topic, and as Canada becomes more diverse it’s important to understand how different cultures honour the wisdom and decision-making of each of its generations.

Today I’m shining a light on the other “multi-generational team” prevalent in philanthropy departments. Never have there been more diverse skills and abilities in business teams than in the past five years. With the Boomers finally checking out, next gen leaders have been filling the vacancies. They bring not just new skillsets, but different ideas on how to approach and build relationships, the essence of the work we do.

A shift

Over my last 24 months of active duty my thinking changed, from one who dismissed current trends, to one who fully embraced the ideas brought forward by newer-to-the-field colleagues. The key to embracing this change was becoming open to the advantages that new skillsets and mindsets contributed to securing bigger gifts from donors. In part, this change happened after attending conference sessions on new types of fundraising, and the evolution of individual giving.

What really opened my eyes, however, were the candidates who applied for vacant roles in our organization. It was an “aha moment” when I found an “old soul” whose skills were off the charts but who also had the mindset and inherent wisdom more of her parent’s generation.

What was most exciting, was to observe how cross functions on the team borrowed from each other’s views and started exhibiting new-to-each-other skills, nomenclature and ideas. It was exhilarating to work in this environment.

Today I want to challenge the “we’ve always done it this way” philosophy that some of you may still be holding, and provide a glimpse into what other leaders in our industry have determined as the pros and challenges of multi-generational philanthropy teams.

Maryann Kerr, CEO of Peel Children’s Aid Foundation, has held leadership roles in the not-for-profit sector for decades. As a seasoned management and philanthropy executive, she has led many diverse teams of professionals. A long admirer of her viewpoint, I asked Maryann her take on multi-generational philanthropy teams.

Maryann, do you have a multi-generational team?

M: We do. Our team is small however we have staff from their late teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies. Our board is also multi-generational and brings our age range up into the’80’s.

Would you consider hiring team members from both ends of the spectrum? Born in 2000 or born in 1960 or earlier?

M: Absolutely. We have and we will again. I see an incredible amount of ageism at both ends of this. There is much disparagement about young people lacking a strong work ethic and we tend to write older folks off or put them out to pasture, when they still have so much to offer. There is a great resource book on this topic written by Taylor & Lebo called, “The Talent Revolution.”

What do you see as an advantage to having many different generations come together?

M: As a team, we have a lot of fun with the generational perspective. We have given each other permission to introduce fun into the workplace around this. For instance, when there’s a new software program to learn, we recognize that the younger gen staff are going to adapt more readily, and they make space for an old timer like me who needs longer to adapt.

I never want to compare our work team to a family because I think that gets us into trouble. We can’t forget that families can be very dysfunctional. In the workplace, multi-generational teams work if we truly see each other, value our different perspectives and engage in open, honest, direct communication. We give each other support and value the learning we garner from each other. Sometimes it’s surprising to discover a younger person who is not enthralled with social media and an older individual who is.

We have a team member in her seventies, who very often captures a lengthy team interaction with one line of wisdom. That’s something learned over many years, and we love her for it. We all bring our best selves to the work and that doesn’t mean that we are at 100% every day. When one team member needs extra support, we all pitch in.

Once again, Maryann has me thinking differently about something I steadfastly believed going into a topic.

Her caution about the “family” aspect of teams alerted me to a trap within this perspective. In the past, I (far too often) felt annoyed by someone I thought I was in sync with, because they disagreed with me or didn’t support my decisions.

The fact is, your workmates and your boss, are not your family. Youi may get along when times are going well, but you may have to separate personal feelings from the day-to-day interactions of a healthy working team. Because, in the end, it’s natural to be ambitious and everyone in leadership should have their first loyalty be to the good of the organization. Anyone who thinks otherwise could be hurt (looking in the mirror here). Or, as a lovely former colleague would say, “Eyre—work is work, boss is boss.”

Can you relate to this topic? Let’s continue the dialogue at Happy Summer, and see you in September for Part Two, Multigenerational Fundraising, The Family.

Eyre Purkin Bien, CFRE is a 32-year philanthropy executive with specialties in donor development, major gifts and campaign design and implementation. Retired now, doing other things.

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