Youth and Philanthropy Initiative

The Future of Philanthropy : from Sept. 26, 2016

(The following is a re-publication of the full text of a talk given by YPI Canada’s Executive Director Holly McLellan, on September 26th, 2016 on the topic of The Future of Philanthropy. The message is still relevant now and so we are sharing it again, in solidarity with the young people demanding a just future at the Global Climate Strikes taking place today.) 


(We create it). Ok that’s not exactly how Abraham Lincoln said it. But it’s really close. And I really mean it. And I promise I have another good quote for you at the end my talk.

Thank you Imagine Canada for bringing us all together. What a great topic. I am going to talk about a couple of the urgent decisions I think we are facing in philanthropy, where I hope we are heading, and how young people are going to help us get there.

I go back and forth between being really excited and absolutely terrified by the coming decade. The love of humanity has the power right now to change the course of humanity itself. And love must prevail.

We will need to tether ourselves to the true spirit of philanthropy as we move rapidly toward a world that – on top of all the historic and present crimes of injustice and gross inequality – cannot support unlimited growth as the status quo. We are tipping the ecological scalesTime is running outThe Oxford Martin School reports we have until the end of 2017 – one year – to stop building new carbon energy infrastructure if we have any chance of staying under 2 degrees warming. Yet there is still so much money invested in searching for more reserves. We need to have some courageous conversations in philanthropy about how we use our assets. This decade we must put our money where our mission is. Nobody’s mission is catastrophic climate change.

We are going to need the philanthropic lens to help us answer futurist questions, like what does humanity value? And how will people be given the time, space, and resources to enjoy and contribute to that value? Particularly important when you consider that almost half of our jobs are predicted to be automated by the time today’s pre-schoolers finish grade 12.

My own daughter just started third grade. In 10 years she will be turning 18, likely just finished high school, and taking her first steps out into the world as a young adult. What I hope the world will look like then, will only be made possible because a vibrant social purpose sector stood up and made it happen. A fair and sustainable economy with philanthropy embedded in investmentsproduction, and supply chains. Human rights, dignity, and social justice. Truth and reconciliationDecent work. Welcoming, liveable cities and communities, including affordable homes in which to live. Biodiversity, clean air and water. Nutritious food security. Arts and culture and journalism. Top-notch healthcare, education, childcare, elder care, and social services. Sounds like we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. But what is the alternative?


From the sounds of the sector, we are getting there as a team, as a multi-nodal network, with resilience and flexibility, with hyper-cooperation, with empathy, with rage, with hope, with mainstreamed social innovations, with disruptive technology and ideas, with money, with shared platforms and shared umbrellas, with public and political will, with informed consumers and engaged citizens, with thick and thin activism, with a new age of policy engagement, and with big decisions, big data, and big transparency.

The future of philanthropy will be realized by strong networks of people and organizations and funders with a shared sense of purpose. Young people not only have a major stake in philanthropy’s success, I will argue they have a crucial role in helping us realize its potential.

Young people are voting in record numbers, they are digitally savvy, they have an appetite for collaboration and transparency, they grew up with messages of inclusiveness, environmentalism, and social progress, and there is growing evidence that their retail and financial choices are going to disrupt the status quo. While young people may share a generation, it is important to recognize that that they are not a homogenous group: they bring to the table diverse perspectives, lived experiences, privileges, and needs. They face significant barriers too: the combination of student debt, precarious work, stagnant wages, and the cost of housing are ironic roadblocks to their full inclusion in social purpose work.

Given all of the competing messages for their attention, time, and resources, they need us to provide access points to the philanthropy network. They need to be valued and included with intention and support.

The project I work for, the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative, has connected 420,000 15-year-olds to philanthropy since 2002. YPI’s oldest alumni are turning 30 this year. Every year, we work with secondary schools to give thousands of students the power, money, and responsibility to stand up for local social issues, and grant hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities doing great work in their own communities. We support their teachers to run the experience as an inclusive project, across the entire grade level, ask them to visit their chosen charities in person, then we mostly get out of their way.

What we’ve learned, and what we’ve measured, is how powerful young people are when you invite and include them as real stakeholders in real issues in real time. When they have an opportunity to be ethical, not theoretical. They rise to the challenge. They teach their classmates, their parents, and their friends about big issues, like housing, discrimination, accessibility, employment, mental health, domestic violence, and hunger. Their visit with charity staff is like flipping on a switch. They become outspoken in their appreciation of our work, in a sector they barely knew existed. They tell us they didn’t know so many people cared, and that it makes them really proud of their community. They want to know what is being done right now, and what they can do to help.


#Youthphil is an emerging international movement among family foundations, community foundations, government programs, and school-based projects like ours who see youth not just as potential beneficiaries of philanthropy, but as leaders and assets who are helping to bring about transformational change in their communities, themselves, and the way grantmakers work.

They are learning the real costs of real impact, and they are learning how to challenge the attitudes and behaviours that have allowed inequalities to deepen. Importantly, more and more next gen foundation leaders are being taught and encouraged to race to the top. There is a tremendous amount of wealth being transferred over the coming decade, and more young leaders are learning the hard and soft skills needed to challenge traditional investment norms, and get their foundation’s power and money more closely aligned with their mission.

Much of what we have learned through our experiences on-the-ground is also supported by the astonishing – almost creepy – amount of research into the habits, values, and motivations of millennials. Millennials are folks who are roughly 15-35 years old now, or, if I can borrow a cheeky description from a youth-led art gallery here in Toronto, they are “younger than Beyonce”.


  1. Provide more opportunities for them to connect directly to the real people and places of their local charitable sector. It builds empathy, trust, and confidence. A young man in one of our Toronto focus groups told us his visit with staff at a local emergency shelter changed his attitude toward women and girls, and now he challenges misogyny whenever he hears or sees it. Empathy changes behaviour.
  2.  Help young people to understand the bigger mission your organization is working toward – and who your allies are. Provide consistent, diverse opportunities for young people to advance your mission. How can they interact with your mission in social movements or public policies or even in the private sector? This is an important in-road for young people, who might not be able to donate.
  3.  Be real and transparent about how much it costs to do great work. At the beginning of YPI last year, one third of the incoming 15 year olds we surveyed guessed that zero people were paid in the charitable sector across Canada. Another third thought it might be in the thousands. Very few guessed that millions of Canadians are employed by a sector providing so much value to the country’s economy and quality of life.

We are tackling major challenges this decade, and we have the chance to transform our future. We have an important opportunity right now, and that is in how, when, and with what intentions we recognize, include, and respond to young people as active stakeholders in our mission.

If we do this well, we can accelerate social purpose by nurturing and channelling a relentless demand for public good, responsible business, and a vibrant social purpose sector. We can help young people feel grounded with a vital sense of empathy, belonging, purpose, and place, especially as more of our conversations happen through screens. We can amplify their eagerness for collaboration, for transparency, and for connection. And we can use our own power to remove barriers young people face to being as transformative as they can possibly be.

teenager from California who is involved in youth philanthropy taught me a quote she loves by an American civil rights lawyer: “Poverty is not the opposite of wealth, in too many places, it is the opposite of justice.” (Bryan Stevenson)

I know that she and many others in her generation, will help us create a future of philanthropy that will be measured not only in how well we give our time, talent, and treasure, but in how well we treat each other, and in how well we take.

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