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Listening, Learning and Leading Across Generations of Family Philanthropy

October 19, 2022
Caryl M. Stern
The Walton Family Foundation is committed to redefining collaboration for greater impact. New insights from Gen Z are helping us chart the course

Sam Walton believed “great ideas come from everywhere if you just listen and look for them.”

Look and listen.

These actions are at the core of how we learn, opening the door to understanding the experiences and aspirations of others.

Philanthropy, at its best, tackles society’s biggest problems by embracing bold ideas that spring from collaboration with those closest to the challenges we are working to solve. It recognizes a fundamental truth—that lasting change must be driven by the voices and needs of people in the communities where we work.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we are committed to learning and leading, together, because we recognize that we don’t have all the answers. Philanthropy can only have true impact when we expand the pool of ideas to solve problems, not just the pool of resources.

We know how important it is for every generation to be heard.

As a family philanthropy founded 35 years ago, we know how important it is for every generation to be heard—for those with different experiences and opinions to have a seat at the table when it comes time to make decisions. Our foundation is led by several generations of the Walton family, where no voice is louder than the next.

Some of today’s most promising ideas come from the young people of Generation Z, who are eager to break down social and economic barriers to create a more just and equitable world. They form a community of future leaders who will inherit the world we leave them—but are too often left out of conversations that affect their lives.

Next Generation Leadership

So, how can philanthropy engage Generation Z as its eldest members (25-year-olds) come of age and into positions of leadership?

To paraphrase Sam Walton, we can start by listening—to their concerns, dreams, ambitions and ideas.

The Walton Family Foundation commissioned extensive research to help us understand the attitudes of Gen Z today—during one of the most tumultuous, tragic and consequential periods of the past century. How do they view collaboration on our world’s biggest issues, and how must institutions like philanthropy adapt to work with them?

Our conversations revealed Gen Z is hopeful they will have a better life than their parents’ generation but face a wide spectrum of barriers.

What we found was optimism about the future, tempered by deep frustration with today’s leaders and uncertainty about how to realize their vision of a just society. Like my generation (hands up for Boomers), they believe they will achieve “the American Dream.” But unlike my generation, they don’t believe the country or its institutions will foster that success—they will be responsible for their own impact.

Our conversations revealed Gen Z is hopeful they will have a better life than their parents’ generation but face a wide spectrum of barriers—from high housing prices, to racial and gender inequality, to a lack of mental health services. They are eager to collaborate with peers and their communities on solutions, but don’t feel they have a good role model or a clear vision of how to do it well. They want to see more diverse representation and young people at decision-making tables to drive more equitable civic engagement and impact. They want leaders to do less talking and take more concrete actions to confront today’s problems, but also worry large institutions are unwilling to take necessary risks for fear of failure.

WeThrive students Cisa Salazer  and Chelsea Vasquez smile and embrace at the Hawthorne Teen Center in Hawthorne, California.
Cisa Salazer (left) and Chelsea Vasquez are enrolled in WeThrive, a training program that helps young entrepreneurs hone their ideas, develop business plans and create and sell their products.

Philanthropy has a huge role to play in supporting young people to realize the goals they have for themselves and society. Our sector can elevate Gen Z voices by providing opportunities to gain life and work experience that prepare them to step into leadership roles where they will have the ability to make decisions that support their vision for the world.

At the foundation, we’re working with organizations like WeThrive, which is helping student entrepreneurs launch and sustain businesses that fill a need in their community.

In the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, we’re supporting the Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship, helping students discover the power to affect change in their communities by developing their passions, testing ideas and learning how to bring them to life.

Aspen Young Leaders fellow Kaitlyn Done stands and smiles in front of the New Roxy Theater in Clarksdale, Miss.
Kaitlyn Done was an Aspen Young Leaders fellow in 2018-19 and a member of the program's first Delta region cohort.

And as society confronts the threats posed by climate change, the foundation is partnering with Audubon to expand our engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to create career pathways for the next generation of environmental leaders.

Redefining Collaboration

As our research with Gen Z shows, high levels of distrust and division in society have made finding solutions more elusive.

To rebuild trust with each other and in our institutions, we need to expand our thinking and practices around collaboration by assembling wide-ranging, diverse coalitions across sectors – including government, corporations and communities – not just forming partnerships with other funders or philanthropic organizations.

By doing that, we can model effective practices that Gen Z and future generations can learn from and build in as they assume leadership roles.

We need not care about all the same issues, or have perfectly aligned beliefs, to understand that there can be more than one way to solve a problem.

For too long, collaboration has been synonymous with teaming up only with those with whom we share common ground. But, when we only work with those who hold our beliefs, we leave ideas and talent on the table. Instead, we need to focus on common solutions. Finding common solutions requires us to work across lines of difference – partnering with or giving money to organizations that align with us on some endeavors but not at all on others.

This financial support is not a blanket endorsement of every grantee and every project they undertake. We need not care about all the same issues, or have perfectly aligned beliefs, to understand that there can be more than one way to solve a problem.

At Walton, we strive to be a role model for inclusive and effective collaboration in all our areas of focus.

Our Environment Program, for example, played a key role in bringing together groups from across the Colorado River Basin to develop a Drought Contingency Plan now being used to help confront the water crisis in the West. These included groups with diverse and often competing interests—representatives from seven states, tribal communities, conservation advocates and other local leaders.

Educators Rising. Keiren Minter 1
Keiren Minter is a junior at Watson Chapel High School and a national ambassador for Educators Rising. The Walton Family Foundation supports the program through its strategy to increase access to high-quality education in the Delta Region of Arkansas and Mississippi.

Our foundation’s approach is rooted in a culture of listening. Before launching our new strategy for the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, we held over 70 meetings with community leaders, including young people, to listen to their needs. What we learned through that process, and in other areas of our work, is that all kinds of innovation become possible when you champion community-driven change.

The problems we face today are more complex and interconnected than ever. Our research with Gen Z confirms what we already knew in our hearts—we need greater equity, empathy, representation and participation—to solve them.

Philanthropy has the capacity—and the responsibility—to foster that kind of inclusive collaboration. We just need to look, listen, learn and lead.

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