Program cultivates young philanthropists

City's Giving Project instills a sense of community, charity

April 27, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Betsy S. Nelson, head of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, worries that Baltimore might be bleeding philanthropists.

She fears that the city's future heirs - people who in a different era would have lived here their whole lives, getting involved in the community and giving money to their favorite causes - are leaving town. Even worse, she is afraid that some might be uninterested in philanthropy altogether.

Her worries are echoed in cities and towns across the country. In the next 50 years or so, about $10 trillion will pass from one generation to the next, by some estimates. In anticipation of that enormous transfer of wealth, Nelson and others nationwide are working to instill a spirit of philanthropy among the younger generations who stand to inherit the money.

"We do have a strong history of some very philanthropic families in Baltimore," Nelson says. "There are people who are very involved in the community, and now their children have located somewhere else. Unless we replace them with other philanthropists, we need to strengthen ties."

The Baltimore Giving Project, which aims to attract nontraditional donors, has a "next generation" emphasis, as do about 10 similar programs around the country.

There's a "Next Generation Working Group," where budding or established philanthropists in their 30s and 40s can share experiences about giving. At a "Family Philanthropy Roundtable," people involved in family foundations can swap stories.

A "youth giving circle" allows the younger set to pool their philanthropic dollars. Plans are being made for a dinner in the fall where younger wealth-holders can meet with Mayor Martin O'Malley to talk about opportunities for giving.

Nelson has also toyed with the idea of sponsoring tours of the city during the holidays to inspire a sense of community among those who have moved away.

Officials at the Baltimore Giving Project aim to catch and keep the interest of people like 24-year-old Scott Erickson, son of the founder of Erickson Retirement Communities, a hugely successful company based in Catonsville. Erickson's parents, John and Nancy Erickson, started the Erickson Foundation in 1998.

Scott Erickson sits on the foundation's board of directors and takes an active interest in philanthropy. But the University of Colorado graduate is between jobs and hasn't decided whether to make Baltimore his home.

Although he says it would probably be best for the foundation, because he'd have more of an investment in the city, he also wants to explore new places. He is hiking out West and trying to figure out what to do with his life.

Erickson feels other tensions inherent in being a next-generation philanthropist, including balancing the desire to inherit money with the desire to give back to the community.

On the one hand, he says, those whose parents have a lot of money often feel some sense of entitlement to it. On the other hand, they feel pressure - not to mention a civic duty - to make their own money and give to those less fortunate.

Balancing the two impulses, he says, is "going to be one of the greatest challenges for the next generation."

Like Scott Erickson, most people involved in the next-generation efforts in Baltimore so far have needed no convincing that philanthropy is important. Mark M. Collins Jr., chairman of the Next Generation Working Group, says it consists of about 50 people active in charitable causes, whether they come from established Baltimore families or - like himself - have moved here from elsewhere.

Collins, a partner at Brown Investment Advisory & Trust Co. in Baltimore, says his hope is that the group will make philanthropy "more approachable and more engaging" and begin to attract members who are not already involved.

"Families are increasingly diffuse," he says. "It's difficult to have a sense of cohesion in a family. It's there, but it might not be as strong with families that have had a tradition here. We need to make sure it continues and find ways to reinforce it."

Heller H. Zaimon, executive director of the Hoffberger Foundation in Towson and a fourth-generation Hoffberger, says her extended family remains strongly invested in Baltimore. But the 31-year-old says the next-generation effort is important because philanthropy has changed.

"In my grandfather's generation, the way they made decisions, it was often in a restaurant," she says. While she believes donors gave money with care, philanthropy today is more deliberate. Decisions are made in a boardroom, not at the Center Club, and follow a clearly defined agenda.

Philanthropy now is more challenging in other ways, she says. Often the next generation is not independently wealthy because family money has been earmarked for foundations or trusts. Like most other people, they must balance working for a living with raising a family. That doesn't leave a lot of time for civic engagement.

"There are more demands on people's time than there ever have been," she says.

Lack of time, rather than lack of interest, might be the biggest challenge, according to Scott Erickson. He hopes that the next-generation meetings and dinners won't become just another commitment that people rush to, willy-nilly, on their way to someplace else.

"It's important to set some agendas very quickly," he says. "If you can't grab people's interest right off the bat and explain why it's important, then I think we run the risk of letting it be just one more thing on a social calendar that starts to slip away with time."

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