Scott Belsky did not enjoy his first taste of big-time philanthropy. Not long after his graduation from Cornell, Belsky and a few friends were invited to a rubber-chicken-dinner fund-raiser in a hotel ballroom. What they saw that night really turned them off. “The whole thing was just one guy after another getting on stage, saying his name and company and how much money he’d given,” Belsky recalls. “We walked out.” There had to be a better way, Belsky decided, and he’s created it for himself.
Last year Belsky, 27, who lives in Manhattan with his fiancée, quit Wall Street to found a startup named Behance, which helps creative professionals maximize productivity. Belsky has also given tens of thousands of dollars to numerous causes, he says, and, more important, devotes around 20 percent of his time to working for four charities. “No one’s interested in that socialite, write-a-check thing anymore,” he says. “My generation wants to be directly involved. That’s a far cry from worrying about having your name carved on a hospital.”
News flash: The era of the blue-haired-old-lady charity ball is dead and gone. Philanthropy today is innovative, hip, and dominated by a new class of freshly minted millionaires and millionaire wannabes, who are transforming what had been a sleepy, aristocratic backwater into a vibrant, professional sector of the economy. Today’s philanthropists wear jeans and meet over laptops at a Starbucks. They flock to exclusive, invitation-only conferences, hire philanthropy coaches, and use terms like social entrepreneur and venture philanthropy. In fact, they tend to operate like venture capitalists, identifying underserved problems and the emerging charities that are trying to solve them, then not only donating money to those charities but also offering advice and demanding results.
Belsky, for example, sits on the five-person board of his grandparents’ foundation, which allocates more than $1 million a year to various causes; he is working to develop a leadership program with City Year, a group that sends young volunteers to do yearlong service in cities such as New York City, New Orleans, and Boston; and he sits on the board of the Slingshot Fund, which collects, bundles, and distributes small contributions from young donors.
“Everybody wants to be hands-on these days,” says Anne-Marie Fowler, who for a number of years was an adviser to philanthropies in San Francisco. “They don’t say they are ‘giving’ money. They say they’re ‘invested.’”
These new-philanthropy “investments” are being made with the gobs of money that have enriched the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans since 1990, accelerating the divide between rich and poor. According to statistics cited by Robert Frank, the Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich, the number of U.S. households worth more than $1 million has doubled since 1995, to more than 8 million. In 2006, total charitable giving in the United States hit a whopping $295 billion, up 4 percent from 2005, setting a record for the third straight year. The number of grant-making charitable foundations has doubled since 1990, to close to 70,000.