As the son of George Soros, one of the world’s wealthiest people, Alexander Soros grew up with rare opportunities in life.
One of those opportunities was to follow in his father’s philanthropic footsteps. The elder Soros imparted on his son lessons he learned in surviving the Holocaust in Hungary, which led him to start the Open Society Foundations (OSF). It is currently the second-largest foundation in the world.
“He was rendered stateless and could have died as a consequence of the Nazis’ Final Solution, yet he has resolved to fight for those doomed to a similar fate,” Alexander Soros said in an interview in a new book, “Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors are Revolutionizing Giving,” by Sharna Goldseker and Michael Moody.
Still in his 30s, Soros has made the most of these lessons. In addition to serving on the board of OSF, he created his own, eponymous foundation.
“With my own philanthropy, it wasn’t a question of if; it was a question of when,” he said. “I knew I was going to do it, to set up a foundation, so why wait until I was older?”
Soros is among the young “next generation” or “next-gen” donors in the US positioned to bring unprecedented resources to philanthropy, according Goldseker and Moody’s book.
The book features interviews with 13 next-gen donors, such as Jewish philanthropist Soros.
Others include Jenna Segal, who created the Passport program through the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan; and Jenna Weinberg, the chair of the grants committee of the Nathan and Lillian Weinberg Foundation who is also involved in two Jewish peer-group “giving circles,” the Slingshot Fund and HEKDESH.
“We felt like there was a lot of power in sharing the voices of the next generation themselves,” said Goldseker, herself a Jewish next-gen donor who has created programming for peers through the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation. “Our job was to thread them together, listening to all of them, and add, of course, quantitative research to the qualitative research.”
An estimated $59 trillion will be transferred intergenerationally among American philanthropic families over a 55-year period that has already begun.
“Without question, it’s an unprecedented amount,” said Moody, who holds the first-ever endowed chair for family philanthropy, at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
The book adds perspective to current debates on taxation, inheritances and income — all ahead of the December 31 IRS giving deadline. It’s a chance to learn firsthand from what Moody calls “the most significant group of philanthropists in history.”
They represent both Generation X, whose members were born between 1965 and 1980; and Generation Y or millennials, born between 1980 and 1995. The authors surveyed over 300 donors and interviewed 75. Virtually all of those interviewed are under 40.
“One of the things about the next gen, particularly millennials, is that they volunteer and give at quite an early age,” Goldseker said, noting that 96 percent of next-gen donors start volunteering before age 21, and 75% before age 15, with “similar statistics for giving at early ages.”
Victoria Rogers, an African-American next-gen donor from Chicago, has been involved in the nonprofit sphere for over a decade, ever since she became a volunteer art tutor at age 12.
Moody said next-gen donors with self-made fortunes, including Hadi Partovi, an Iranian-born tech entrepreneur and investor, “earned their own wealth in one generation at a much earlier age” than Gilded Age philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller (whose great-great-grandson Justin Rockefeller was interviewed).
How the next gen uses its resources also differs from the past. “They’re fixated in a very deep way on impacting a lot of changes, not just because they want to, but because they feel it will lead to more impact,” Moody said. “They’re deeply interested in seeing the direct impact of giving.”
And they are “hands-on, very deeply involved in organizations, [seeking] ways to be innovative,” he said.
Partovi created the nonprofit Code.org, which he funds with his own millions while serving as its CEO, to “focus on one end goal: every school in the United States teaching computer science to a diverse student population,” he says in his interview in the book. “We have engineers that came from Amazon or Microsoft or Dropbox or Google. That’s not normal for nonprofits.”
Other next-gen donors work with traditional institutions in new ways. Segal, a Broadway producer and women’s advocate, worked with the JCC of Manhattan to create Passport for Birthright Israel alumni.
“Receiving a ‘passport’ to take classes at the JCC upon their return from Israel, these younger members of the Jewish community become connected to an institution and come to see it as a place to connect with their peers and the community,” she says in her interview.
“Thinking even bigger,” she said, “I’d eventually like to see this Passport program replicated in JCCs nationally.”
The featured donors do not include Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps the most famous Jewish next-gen donor. But he is mentioned several times, and the authors noted his evolving role in philanthropy.
Zuckerberg’s first philanthropic venture, to the Newark, New Jersey, public schools, represented “old-style giving,” Moody said. “Write a big check to a place you trust, people you believe in, let them take the money and go off and do good things.”
Now he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, give through what Goldseker calls “a new approach”: the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which provides “not just big grants — although they do that, of course,” but also supports organizations, politics, policy, socially responsible businesses.
Next-gen philanthropy is a subject that Goldseker has researched professionally for 15 years, beginning when the Bronfman Foundation invited her to join its New York office “specifically to help nurture the next generation of philanthropists,” she said.
She helped launch initiatives for Jewish next-gen donors: A Giving Circle (which became Natan); Grand Street; Slingshot and the Slingshot Fund; and 21/64. She is the executive director of 21/64, which works with both next-gen donors and their families.
“21 symbolizes the time when young people come of age, and 64 an age typically associated with people thinking about their legacies,” according to the organization’s website.
“The numbers are not meant to be exclusive of people older or younger, rather to be representational of our multigenerational scope and inclusive of the five generations above age 21 in American society today,” it says.
Experts disagree on where the next gen fits into the long narrative of American philanthropy.
“Young people are always the brass ring that everybody tries to grab onto to give, become lifetime, lifelong supporters of an entity or organization,” said David Mersky, the director of education and professional development at the Institute for Jewish Philanthropy and Leadership at Brandeis University.
“What I’m trying to say is that there’s nothing new. The only thing a bit unique is that Zuckerberg and others are giving at levels that are astronomical,” he said.
Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Society of America, also notices the scale of next-gen philanthropy. But for him, it represents something totally new.
“Unprecedented numbers of foundations, an unprecedented number of donor-advised funds, all of these dollars sitting in philanthropic ventures, exponential, [in which] succeeding generations will play a role dispensing and allocating funds,” said Wertheimer. “The other part that is unprecedented is the sheer sums involved.”
And, he added, those with self-made fortunes have earned hundreds of millions “at very young ages.” Before, he said, “individuals worked hard their whole lives to build up a company they sold in their 60s or 50s. Now we’re talking about young people worth staggering amounts of money already in their 30s, if not in their 20s. It creates a whole new dynamic.”
This wealth in general is a cause of concern for Lila Corwin Berman, the Murray Friedman Chair of American Jewish History at Temple University and the director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History.
Berman wrote in an email that “the inequality gap has increased sharply from the 1970s to today,” and “very wealthy donors have new ways of harnessing state policies that are favorable to wealth accumulation at the top to their particular philanthropic agenda. So whatever is disruptive and innovative about Gen X and millennial donors must be interpreted as part and parcel of wealth [and power] inequality.”
The authors recognize that this is “a time of incredible and rapidly soaring wealth concentration,” in which the richest 1% of Americans own 43% of the wealth.
But they remain hopeful, writing that “[even] if the giving rate stays the same for the wealthiest individuals, the sheer amount they will give will climb. How these big donors give will make a big difference.”
Mersky said “nobody can tell somebody else, or should tell, what they should engage in or support.” But he recommends a few time-honored rules: “Give to something in which you believe; have a personal connection; and [seek] transparency, a clear understanding of how philanthropic donations are to be used.”
It sounds like the next gen is listening.
“We’re out there, and we are passionate if we’re engaged in a meaningful way,” Segal says. “If we are, we will be highly involved and generous donors for a long time.”