Most people think about charitable giving at two extremes: Either wealthy individuals writing checks with lots of zeros, or the rest of us pulling a $20 bill out of our wallets a few times a year to sponsor a friend’s race or drop into a Salvation Army kettle.
That kind of passive giving doesn’t appeal to 25-year-old do-gooder Clare Eisenberg, who earmarks $50 from each paycheck for good causes. She wants to know more about where her money is going, and she wants to amplify its effect.
So she joined Fourth Generation, a group organized through the Minneapolis Foundation that’s designed to create some middle ground for younger, often middle-class philanthropists.
“It adds up and I am able to have an impact,” said Eisenberg, a development manager for the Minnesota State Fair Foundation.
About 60 people, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 40s, pool their dollars and time, aiming them at one broad social issue each year. Many members fall within middle-income brackets, but anyone can join.
Fourth Generation members research charities in a chosen area, pool their money and make grants. Last year, the focus was mental health. This year, the group chose to focus on criminal justice reform.
The group has grown each year.
“As the population grows and changes, people are looking for more collaborative philanthropy — pooling resources so we can have a bigger impact than we can alone,” said Alyssa Hawkins, a Minneapolis Foundation staffer who advises Fourth Generation.
Each member brings a minimum of $250 to the table, along with their own values. Member fundraising and other donors, including the Minneapolis Foundation, add to the pot. Fourth Generation gave away $50,000 to mental health charities last spring. In its six years, the group has given away $225,000.
Dollars for new values
Fourth Generation emerged as the Minneapolis Foundation approached its 100-year mark. There was plenty of looking back and applause for past accomplishments, but then came the question: How could the nonprofit powerhouse keep and retain a younger generation of givers?
First, the foundation had to foster a group that responded to new generational values, Hawkins said.
“Millennials and Generation Xers are less inclined to just write a check. They follow their dollars to organizations. They want to spend time and money there,” Hawkins said. “They want to know where the money is going.”
That was true for Lisa A. Johnson, a client adviser for Bernstein Private Wealth Management.
She moved from Chicago back to her hometown of Minneapolis in 2012. Johnson, 32, looked for a smart, informed way to give back and connect with new people.
Fourth Gen checked both of those boxes, said Johnson, who chairs the group this year.
“It’s really easy to get people involved in something when you are naturally excited about it,” she said.
The group meets once a month in the evening, at various locations. Meetings are casual, and often start with a short social time.
Members advocate for and then vote on a topic at their first meeting. One year, they rallied around services for seniors. Another year the focus was services for homeless youth.
The group tends to gravitate to topics making headlines and on people’s minds, and that therefore energize its members. They invite experts to speak on the topic so they can better understand and define their work. They research dozens of local charities that serve that cause. They pore through financials and grant applications to get a better feel for each charity.
Research and reward
Last year, members discovered 70 organizations providing mental health services. After more research including phone calls and internet searches and debate, they whittled the list to 20 groups and invited them to apply for grants.
“You learn so much. We start digging in,” Johnson said.
That’s also when members’ individuals values come out, she said. There can be real debate about the best way to spend those dollars.
Is the money best spent on efforts to influence public policy, or direct services? Do they want to invest in nonprofits with strong religious or political convictions? How large is the nonprofit — will a $10,000 donation affect its mission or will it feel like a drop in the bucket?
“We are usually able to come to a consensus so peacefully,” Eisenberg said.
Last year, Fourth Generation members visited 10 nonprofits and awarded money to seven of them. They saw firsthand how that money was spent and who was being helped.
An $8,000 grant went to the St. Paul-based Ars Bellum Foundation. Founded in 2014, it uses art therapy to help veterans and their families coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems.
“At first, you don’t even know you are being considered. It felt really good,” said Bridget Cronin, Ars Bellum CEO.
“Part of it is relationship building where you really get to know them and they get to know you. Part of the benefit is you are introduced to so many people. For a young organization like ours, it helps build visibility,” she said.
And in an era of crowdfunding and almost weekly social media causes célèbres, people can bring a healthy cynicism to the decision of whether to donate, Cronin said. The Fourth Gen process allows donors of more modest means to ask questions and feel out a charity before writing a check.
“People really want to know where their money is going, and if it’s going to a good cause, and if it’s well run and benefiting the people it’s intended to,” Cronin said.