The philanthropic sector is changing, as diverse voices demand a seat at the table and social media and the internet bring those voices together at a speed and efficiency that the sector hasn’t previously experienced. Among the groups paving a new path is Generation Z, or Gen Z—the most diverse and tech-savvy generation working in the sector today.
Who is Gen Z?
Categorized as “digital natives” or people who have little or no memory of a world without smartphone technology, Gen Z is made up of people born between 1997 and 2012, which means its oldest members are about 25 and its youngest are still in elementary school. For the older members of Gen Z, their coming of age was marked by the aftermath of 9/11, the war on terror, and the financial crisis of 2008. The younger members of Gen Z have grown up in school systems where active shooter drills are commonplace, political fragmentation is amplified on social media, and issues of inequality are exacerbated and were put on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both ends of the Gen Z spectrum have experienced the internet at its peak, with instant and unlimited access to information in their hands at all times. The fast-paced nature of smartphones and social media has influenced every industry, as banking, work, social connections, and everything in-between are accessible with just the push of a button. According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, and Americans of Gen Z are on track to be the most well-educated generation.
But with Gen Z’s accumulation of knowledge and college degrees comes a higher accumulation of debt. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, members of Gen Z already have, on average, $20,900 in student debt—about 13 percent more than millennials, their predecessors.
Since most of Gen Z are either still in school or too early in their careers to build substantial wealth, statistics on their donor participation and wealth building are minimal, but the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center examined Gen Z’s relationship to poverty.
The report found that Gen Z has experienced exceptionally high poverty rates, reaching a peak of 23 percent in 2011 and 2012, and then steadily falling to 17 percent by 2021. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Gen Z will make up 30 percent of the workforce by 2030.
Outspoken advocates and agile organizers
Gen Z grew up with unlimited access to information through the internet and smartphones but limited financial resources. The influence can be seen in Gen Z’s giving and advocacy habits, as Gen Z tends to have a smaller giving portfolio than older donors but expects a stronger and more meaningful connection to the nonprofits and causes they choose to support. Moreover, they have demonstrated a likelihood to be more outspoken advocates for the causes they give to than previous generations, with a Classy report finding “next-gen” donors (identified as a combination of millennials and Gen Z) to be three times as likely to advocate on an organization’s behalf compared to Gen X and Baby Boomer donors.
Quick and tangible impacts are focal points for Gen Z donors and advocates, making the generation more likely to support decentralized, grassroots movements that can immediately respond to a cause on the ground, rather than larger established nonprofits. Indeed, their digital native status has only reinforced their preference for decentralized movements, as many grassroots organizations across the world are accessible through social media.
Platforms like GoFundMe and Give Directly, which offer direct cash transfers, have risen in popularity thanks to Gen Z. Part of what makes these platforms appealing is the immediate impact donors can offer, said Give Directly director of communications Tyler Hall. As a generation that grew up around mutual aid movements, or groups focused on direct action in support of and in solidarity with communities in need, outside of systems of power, Gen Z finds similarities to Give Directly’s global approach, Hall explains. Their influence can also be seen in the marketing and advocacy used by organizations like Give Directly, which leverages social media by contracting influencers to help spread their messaging and engage directly with Gen Z in their virtual backyards. The method has proved effective, according to the Classy report, which found next-generation donors were four times more likely than previous generations of donors to learn about causes from influencers and celebrities.
An influencer generation using social media to create change
The use of social media and influencer-style messaging isn’t just a marketing tactic for organizations to engage Gen Z; it’s a major way that Gen Z has been influencing the sector, affecting change, and spreading messages in their own words. An influencer-driven campaign on TikTok was the very foundation of the youth-led organization Gen-Z for Change.
“I did not intend to start an organization. I was trying to organize a phone bank of TikTokers for Joe Biden in 2020 because I’m an organizer; that’s my background,” said Gen-Z for Change founder Aidan Kohn-Murphy. Gen-Z for Change is a registered 501(c)(4) dedicated to digital and community organizing to affect social change. Every member of the organization is a member of Gen Z. Its founding team was in high school when the organization began.
After setting up a Zoom meeting with like-minded social media influencers, Kohn-Murphy said he recognized that the reach of their collective network was clearly beyond a one-time phone bank. “After the election, we had 400 creators with a combined following of, at that point, about 200 million. Now it’s about 500 creators with a combined following of about 500 million.”
With a growing network, Gen-Z for Change focuses its efforts on tangible and immediate change that can be made to broad and persistent social issues such as climate change, racial justice, gender equity, and reproductive rights. Its website and social media platforms guide users to actionable efforts that can be done on their phones, often including spamming tip lines to nullify anti-progressive efforts. Kohn-Murphy attributes some of the organization’s success to its ability to stay present and respond to events as they happen.
“I really never let myself think a year in advance, two years in advance, because I saw a lot of young organizations that were doing that get so caught up in the future that they were missing the opportunities right in front of them,” he said. “Because we’re youth-led, the approvals process for an action looks very different than [those of] a larger organization.”
Kohn-Murphy recounted the Zoom meeting he had with his team when the decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was leaked—what began as a supportive check-in with the team grew into a 48-hour brainstorming session on how the organization can support people affected. Within a week, Gen-Z for Change was mobilizing its digital advocates to implement and promote the SAFER initiative, a five-pronged call to action supporting people seeking abortions. The initiative raised $2.3 million for abortion funds across the country and inspired Yelp to add a disclaimer to locations listed on its site as crisis pregnancy centers to clarify to users that the centers do not offer abortion services or referrals.
When it comes to an organizational model, reactionary efforts and results like these are what Gen-Z for Change strives for and admires in other organizations, Kohn-Murphy said. He emphasized that the term “reactionary” can have an unfair negative connotation, but he argued that remaining reactionary offered a clear path to problem-solving. Reacting to individual events eventually shifts large issues closer to the overall goal, Kohn-Murphy said.
Kohn-Murphy explained that having tangible and immediate results are necessary as a youth-led organization—it serves as a concrete reference point for those, especially potential funders, who may doubt or trivialize the power of social media and youth advocacy.
The way Tazin Khan, founder and CEO of the Cyber Collective, sees things, Gen Z is the driving force behind much of the change the sector is experiencing. Cyber Collective—a self-proclaimed “youth-adjacent” organization with members identifying as both millennial and Gen Z—is focused on promoting awareness and education around online privacy and cybersecurity. Khan, a millennial, often finds herself and the organization, which is four years old, between new Gen Z organizations and traditional foundations, offering her a unique vantage point. The decentralized nature of youth-led organizations and the speed at which they’re able to affect change is quickly turning the tide in the industry, she explained.
“I think they are doing a phenomenal job of pushing the boundaries of philanthropy to go beyond the same template of people they fund. I see that [philanthropy] is a very incestuous industry—it’s the same money that flows around to different people and organizations,” Khan said. “It’s really pushing the boundaries in a super positive way to work with these grassroots types of organizations and then helping them scale, and what’s helpful is these people that are leading these initiatives understand the potential harmful downstream impact of scaling, which I think is informing the philanthropic industry as well to think about where they’re distributing their dollars. Does it have to be about scaling? It might change the way that they create their impact metrics.”
Mentorship is a two-way street
While Gen Z is already leaving its mark on the sector, they’re not working alone. The very nature of being a youth-led organization comes with its own set of disadvantages, including a lack of experience working within the sector and a lack of a funding network. Grantmakers like the Omidyar Network and the Ford Foundation are stepping up to help close the gaps and providing more than just capital to youth-led organizations.
Omidyar Network partnered with 15 organizations to launch the Responsible Technology Youth Power Fund initiative in April, which awards between $25,000 and $200,000 to youth- and intergenerational-led 501(c)(3) eligible organizations and initiatives. The goal is to give youth-led organizations access to the funding that could push their impact forward. Gen Z for Change and Cyber Collective are two such organizations within the fund.
“We’ve really tried to show up as an organization that gives support in more than just dollars,” said Emma Leiken, Omidyar Network’s senior associate of programs and a member of its Responsible Technology team. “We’re constantly trying to mentor and broker connections across youth-led groups, [between] other youth-led groups and adult-led groups, or support organizations with limited media and communications capacity to figure out where they might place an op-ed and how they might get their work more visibility. Something that we’ve done that I think is really important to address the infrastructural barriers is fiscal sponsorship support—finding groups that don’t currently have a forum through which to receive funding the right fiscal sponsors, so that they can get philanthropic dollars or philanthropic support.”
Leiken explained that support for youth-led organizations takes different forms, all of which are integral to lasting success in the philanthropic space. “There’s, in a way, collective action challenges when it comes to supporting youth organizing because of both perceived and very real risks of investing in youth- and intergenerational-led work,” she said. “There’s real risk that exists related to organizational management, experience, and capacity facing small-institution organizations that’s exacerbated with youth teams, and there are perceived risks that exist related to our culture’s understanding of what young people are capable of and the role they have to play in technology. A lot of what we’ve sought to do is address different barriers that come to the fore.”
Leiken and Khan have become translators in the philanthropic sector, bridging the generational gap between youth-led organizers and established foundations to promote intergenerational philanthropy. While veteran foundations can offer a larger—and in some cases, more sustainable—network of financial and advocacy support, Gen Z offers a new perspective and avenue to bring about change efficiently and equitably. Khan explained that getting the two to meet in the middle sometimes requires finding a common language through which to inform and dispel any preconceived ideas.
“It has been very beneficial to be in the middle ground between the two,” Khan said. “Because, going back to that thought that the youth is naïve, we’re able to kind of placate some of those philosophies and push against them to strongly say, hey, we work with these Gen Z advocates. We’re a part of these coalitions and these groups that are inspiring and are agents of change, that are doing tangible things in a fast-track manner that I don’t think previous generations have successfully been able to do.”
Kohn-Murphy said that what sets Gen Z apart and makes them beneficial to established organizations is their intersectional view on issues, finding common threads and relations between focus areas that affect people in more than one way. He described Gen Z as growing up having a “front row seat” to injustice and no ability to ignore it. Instead, Gen Z has chosen to work against it.
“Something that a lot of youth-led organizers and organizations bring to both intergenerational collaboration in the tech field, but also to philanthropy, is a real intersectional way of looking at issues, which is really important and allows us to deconstruct siloing in the philanthropic space,” Leiken explained. “I’ve seen that a lot of Gen Z leaders are more likely to see intersections across issue areas. When it comes to technology, some groups are thinking about the environmental implications of tech-induced gentrification in urban areas, or the environmental cost of data centers, or reproductive health implications of surveillance capitalism and the capture of location data. This intersectional lens is beneficial in the intergenerational organizing space, and it’s also beneficial to philanthropy to help us see connections across our different issue areas.”
“Something that a lot of youth-led organizers and organizations bring to both intergenerational collaboration in the tech field, but also to philanthropy, is a real intersectional way of looking at issues, which is really important and allows us to deconstruct siloing in the philanthropic space.”
Funders embracing Gen Z
Gen Z organizations are saying loud and clear that what they need from the sector is support, and the Ford Foundation is taking note.
In January, Ford launched its Youth Organizing and Culture Change Fund (YOCCF) in New York City, selecting 10 youth-led and -serving organizations in the city that it will help support and guide as they work at the intersection of organizing, arts, culture, and systemic social transformation. The pilot program will serve as a blueprint for when the initiative expands to additional cities. Much like Omidyar’s youth initiative, YOCCF offers participants more than just funding (organizations will each receive $160,000 in general operating support over two years); they also will gain access to capacity building support, leadership development opportunities, and community-building efforts with artists, cultural producers, and philanthropic partners.
Ford Foundation director of civic engagement and government Javier Valdés explained that YOCCF is dedicated to creating a sustainable pipeline of philanthropic leaders, organizers, and advocates by investing and mentoring them now. Valdés said that throughout his years in philanthropy, youth-led organizations were often discounted.
“Helping fundraise for that type of work is very hard, it’s hard to raise resources for it. A lot of that work was invisibilized—the part young people were playing—or was tokenized in the funding community,” Valdés said. “Many times, people perceived what they wanted to do was support art education, afterschool programming, but not something that was connected to systems change or power.”
Part of YOCCF’s process is bringing youth organizers together to build and expand their own networks. According to Valdés, each component of the leadership initiative is a tool that the organizers can build upon, and some of the “soft skills” include building a network of likeminded colleagues to lean on for support.
“We only move at the speed of trust, and that allows you to kind of move things quicker,” Valdés said.
The initiative prioritizes work-life balance as a key to sustained success in the philanthropic sector—a notion that Gen Z organizers within the program champion in contrast to the stereotypes of burnt-out social sector workers.
“We partner with Universal Partnership, who help do the technical aspects of what it means to be an organizer in this time—but also what’s called personal ecology or the embodied leadership. What do you need to do to take care of yourself and your body in order to be here?” explained. “In the longer term, what we are trying to prevent is you’re an organizer for three years, you burn out, you go to law school, and then we lose you forever.”
The goal is to have a generation of well-rounded philanthropic leaders who not only prioritize the causes affecting them and their communities, but who take care of themselves so they can see their initiatives through. Khan finds Gen Z’s unequivocal determination to do good and not sacrifice themselves in the process a signal of change in the industry itself.
“Their ability to not compromise their joy and use the systems that they’re fighting back against to do what they want to do—I’m really inspired by that,” she said. “I think that these philanthropic organizations are more open to it, and they’re inevitably learning that they’re not going to be able to go far with their initiatives without the youth. At the end of the day, these organizations are being led by business-minded people, and business-minded people are very aware of how loud and visible voices can help push their initiatives forward and how social media is being leveraged as a tool to do so. I think they can see that the young people are doing it very well and at a speed at which I don’t think that they can keep up with, so there’s a lot of openness.”
“Their ability to not compromise their joy and use the systems that they’re fighting back against to do what they want to do—I’m really inspired by that. I think that these philanthropic organizations are more open to it, and they’re inevitably learning that they’re not going to be able to go far with their initiatives without the youth."
The inclusion of Gen Z in the philanthropic space is not only beneficial but necessary to affect change equitably and efficiently. As Gen Z advances in the workforce, time will tell where their dollars will circulate. For now, established philanthropic institutions have a decision to make as to how they would like to engage with or be influenced by Gen Z changemakers.
“Engagement is different than influence and I think that’s the big differentiator here,” Khan said, “Are the youth-led organizations getting the same seats at the real decision-making table?”
Collectives like the Responsible Technology Youth Power Fund and YOCCF are signals that funders are ready to not only support youth-led groups but guide them and other traditional foundations to an intergenerational future for philanthropy.