Few people know the changing realm of philanthropy as intimately as Christine Sherry. From her Silicon Valley base, she has advised, taught and facilitated philanthropic planning for some of the biggest tech names in the US. In addition to her consulting work, she is a Visiting Practitioner at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and a Trustee of the San Francisco Ballet – all of which lend her a unique vantage point into what she deems the ‘brave new world’ of philanthropy.
“Philanthropy is becoming so much more democratised,” Sherry says. “We’re seeing a global transition from philanthropy being the exclusive prerogative of a small number of large, very private foundations to something lots of people can participate in, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Sherry cites crowd funding, collaborative ventures and the active engagement of next generation donors as the key drivers of change that are breaking down walls and steering philanthropy in new directions. She predicts that a broader base of donors, empowered and enabled by crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter, is already reshaping the rules of philanthropic engagement.
“The power of crowd funding is something that I think many people in the traditional philanthropic world poo pooed,” she says with a laugh. “And I admit that I was sceptical too in the beginning but now, just look around – we’re all connected via social media and you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
“That said, it’s still very important for traditional foundations – and frankly for governments too – to continue to fund as well, because lots of small groups can raise lots of little bits of money but I don’t think it will supplant the role of private donors.”
Working with the next generation of philanthropic leaders, Sherry counsels her clients to take a long view of philanthropy and says that despite the immediacy of the digital era and the swift rise to riches many tech entrepreneurs experience, the majority of them are in it for the long haul.
“There might be an assumption that they’re quite impulsive people but I actually don’t see that. Sure they’re digitally savvy and very smart at figuring out how you can raise money quickly online but I don’t think that means they have a short vision.
“Perhaps because they’re so young they look at issues like climate change, which is for many of them, the defining issue of their generation, and they’re able to make really long bets and take on important issues where the outcomes aren’t predictable and where it may take a decade or longer to make change. For instance, something like climate change – how do you find an entry point into that topic? How do you take on a slice of the problem? We’re not going to know for 20 or 25 years whether the strategies we’re pursuing are going to succeed.”
Thankfully, risk isn’t a dirty word to many of the new philanthropists who have built their business success on a willingness to test new ideas, fail, then try again. Even still, pushing philanthropic boundaries is not for everyone, Sherry concedes. “Social change is hard and it takes a long time. Not everybody’s going to have that appetite.”
Another profound shift that has been amplified by the Silicon Valley experience is the relative longevity of the new wave of philanthropic leaders, many of whom embark on their philanthropic journey aged in their 30s or younger.
“Many of the new entrepreneurs in the Valley are still running businesses and starting families,” Sherry says.
“They’re not going to be giving to their full capacity for a long time but I see many of them quietly joining boards, studying issues, starting to invest in their own education and giving away money. That trend is going to continue and we’ve turned the corner from a time when people waited till the end of their business careers.
“A lot of the young graduates I work with from Stanford are already giving away money even right upon graduation and there’s really interesting data that shows younger Americans are giving more and giving earlier.”
Investing in donor education
Sherry is a passionate advocate for investing in the next generation of philanthropic leaders and believes that philanthropy, like any other industry, demands a high level of professional knowledge in order to do it well.
“I don’t think we should assume that just because people have made a lot of money that that’s going to translate into them being philanthropic,” she explains.
“There is a constant tension about why should we invest in educating wealthy people about how to give away money, but one of the reasons I think philanthropy has grown at the pace it has in Silicon Valley is that the forefathers, groups like Hewlett and others, valued education and invested in programs and partnerships between newer entrepreneurs and existing foundations.”
Here in Australia, Sherry praises the donor education role played by groups like the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN), which facilitates collaboration and information sharing among members to build knowledge and heighten effectiveness.
“When you invest in the education of newer donors you see that they give more, they give more strategically and they take on leadership positions. They become more engaged and more effective over their lifetimes and that’s a really big thing.”