"It has become really easy to engage without organisations"

Derrick Feldmann
© Tessa Tillett Photography

Derrick, how and when did you get in touch with philanthropic issues? 
In college, when I was an intern for the governor of Illinois. In a role like that, you start to interact with the general public in terms of social issues. What I started to realise is that I really have this passion for trying to help individuals. From there, I took a couple of roles and eventually went to the school of philanthropy at Indiana University, where I started to develop my interest in the younger demographic. 

Why that life-period in particular? 
They are times when we go through some significant life changes as human beings. It is the time of college and university, of education, jobs, partnerships, and relationships. I wanted to understand how these social issues interact and how we engage in this process. We tend to focus on people who already have large capital, but things happen in the formative years that lead us down certain paths. Something very interesting also happens during that time: it’s a moment in our life when there is much adoption of technologies and systems, with which we interact for the first time. Throwing situations in there that our friends and us personally are going through which shape our values and our belief systems. So if we can understand that moment, imagine the power we have over the future as well.

Do you consider yourself part of the new generation known as “millennials”? 
In terms of age, I am at the cut-off point. So I have characteristics and tendencies that would be considered millennial. However, my wife is on the cuts as well, and she has much more generation Y tendencies. But let’s not talk about that (laughs).

What are these tendencies exactly? 
Millennials expect that organisations should be transparent and that they will be equals and partners for social change. Millennials have that mentality that organisations aren’t what they are doing it for; rather, they do it for the issues organisations represent. This is a mindset-shift away from some of the more professionalised environments, where we had organisational causes who said, “If you want to create change, you should do that through us”. The next generation is saying, well, I don’t have to do that through you. That is a little challenging and sort of a new cultural attitude in our perception of the role causes play today, and how the current generation may not see them in the same light as other generations.

But when they do engage in an organisation like a foundation, what are the expectations and needs of this young generation? 
For younger generations, the real question becomes “What’s the value? Why should I do something with this organisation?” It is not because they have a great history or have been in business for so long, or that they have the most recognition in society. The reason is: “If I participate with you, is that beneficial for the issue, and will the issue advance progress in some way?” 

How will millennials change the face of philanthropy? 
I think they will force us to figure out which organisations will be used. The reason is that it is so easy to do something without them. New technologies will make it even faster and easier to do good. The ones that become more relevant, the ones that become more participatory, will be the ones that will likely stick around. The second thing is that they are going to force us to rethink what it means to give to a cause, to give my time, my voice, my network, because I don’t necessarily think my money is as valuable as they do. You have a difference in opinion between what’s most valuable. I think that will make the causes create new structures to allow them to be more adaptable. 

Let’s talk about your research. One of your very basic claims is that we now have a generation who inherently have the drive to do good. Can you explain to me how you got there? 
I’m going to speak from the American perspective on this because that’s what has been predominant in my research. We have a generation that has grown up with some formal systems to engage us in the community. While this generation was coming of age, certain things were put in place to incentivise our demands engagement. That includes AmeriCorps or Peace Corps programmes, the heights of their era. The second thing is that we were embedding service in the idea of getting involved as part of the requirement for applying for college and doing different things to get into higher education. We were awarding and recognising those who did the most in their community. So, as people are aging in that system, it becomes part of us. Now what is also interesting is that you couple that growth and learning with things that have happened to force us as a generation to be active. Think about things like September 11 or other moments. All in all, we have both experience and learning and recognition all sort of built into this motivation to do something and act.

So we are trained to do good? 
It’s muscle that you flex over time. At the beginning, it’s hard to go to exercise but over time it becomes part of who you are. That’s essentially what we are trying to do – move beyond what we would call the path of least resistance. That’s a very critical moment where something moves from passive action to conscious and thoughtful action for change. Two different states. 

To find out more about how millennials work compared to elder generations, I was talking to another expert with many years of experience: my mother. To her, this generation seems egocentric and self-involved, and also uncertain about what to do in life and how to do it. How would you answer her? 
(laughs) I would say the same thing that I said to my mum, when she made the same comment: wouldn’t it be great to turn the clock back and see what your parents said about you? The notion we have about every generation is shaped by the media narrative that goes on. In fact, the greatest generations said the boomers where the least active when it came to civic engagement. What makes things challenging for the older demographic is that we have new ways of doing what we do. Some will look at traditional measures and keep that traditional measure as a constant for determining whether something today is the same as it was before. In the United States, my mum and dad would have been in a lot of trouble with their parents had they gone into debt to go to college. My mum and dad not only encouraged it; they even filled out forms for me to go into debt. These are social cultural norm changes. So we have to be careful about our generalisations and feelings, because they are not consistent throughout our lifetimes. 

More generally speaking, what are the incentives for this generation to do good?
Our ability to capture the intention of a population and influence people is based upon two components to it: is something that is happening challenging my core values and beliefs, or is something so completely personal and local to where I live, work, think, and interact that it affects my intention at that moment? Those are two very unique and different positions. 

Can you give an example? 
On one side, you can for example say “I don’t believe in the LGBTQR situation that is happening right now, but it affects my core values, and that’s why I’m going to sue. I may not know anybody, but it has an affect on my core values. On the other side of the camp, somebody can say, “I want to help engage in cancer education, because that’s personal to me”. The vast majority of our engagement can bounce between those two positions. Feeling both of these worlds, we are incentivised; our brain doesn’t want us to just sit back and allow things to happen. Rather, it wants to push us forwards. 

What role do foundations have here? 
Foundations can help causes think beyond just the stakeholders. I want to remind us all that change requires a cross-sectorial approach. It means working with government, working with the general public, and working with other sectors. It means getting somebody in rural Germany to believe in the same thing as somebody in Berlin. It requires looking at the public as a force to be reckoned with, as well as looking on them as part of change. Foundations can take a step forward and instigate causes to ask, “What are you doing to get those in the public to understand this issue and drive their involvement, rather than it being just us doing it alone?” The more you work across sectors – and the public is a sector – the better change will be, not just in terms of getting policy changed, but also in terms of who will implement policy in the end. I mean, if you take LGBTQR, we have certain laws on the book of the United States, but it does not mean the public is actually keeping to these laws. Social change requires public involvement, and I encourage foundations to press upon causes in their conversations, asking them how they will get the public to change their hearts and minds so that we can all join together in a movement of change, rather than one over the other.

You did a lot of research into this field. Do you think millennials are somehow gravitating towards foundations? 
I think to move into the foundation world is probably for those who have already been in that space. What we see is more individuals moving towards being social entrepreneurs. 

In your book "Social Movements for Good", you describe how social movements can be successful. You describe many aspects of success, but if you had to narrow it down, what are the basic mechanisms of a successful movement for good? 
We have already mentioned the path of least resistance. We need to perform small acts to trick the brain, as though to say “I care and I want to raise my hand.” The element that is very important right after that is to see others that believe just like me. A movement is built upon collective action. That means that the companionship we have drives us in our engagement. We need to see, witness, feel, and act together with others to embody this and make it who we are. I need to continue to act in small ways to constantly reinforce my belief. What that means is as follows. From petition signing to sharing a story, none of these things may necessarily change the issues at all, but they mean I am building a loyalty to the movement. Lastly, I just need to be let go. I need to actually go out on my own and convince and self-organise, and I need resources from a leader or a cause to help spark me to go do something and make that thing happen. So: overcome the path of least resistance, help me see others that believe in the same things I do, act in small means to reinforce that belief, and then self-organise. 

How can foundations support such a social movement for good? 
Foundations can come in at formative stages as they start to see people raise their hand and say “This is an issue we care about”. They can keep an overview and say who will work on this or that, and how we get behind the leaders in terms of strategies, concepts, guidance and funding to help them understand that now it’s time to lift others up to share and move causes through these different phases. This is a very unique leadership role foundations can play. 


Interviewer
Theo Starck

Trainee

Phone +49 (0) 30 89 79 47-84

About Derrick Feldmann
Derrick Feldmann is the author of "Social Movements for Good" and founder of the “Millennial Impact Research Project”, an agency that helps to investigate, activate, and motivate people.