Young and wealthy,a new generation has sights on social change

By Irene Sege, Globe Staff  |  December 28, 2004

CAMBRIDGE -- Christmas may be over, but not the season of giving. As the tax year draws to a close, checkbooks open for a rash of charitable donations. Until recently, Courtney Young's parents, wealthy as they are, were among those last-minute benefactors, capping off a year of giving characterized more by mood at the moment of request than any systematic plan.

Then Young, 25, got involved with Resource Generation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 to encourage young people of means to use philanthropy to encourage social change. Now, thanks to Young's prodding, her family thinks about targeting their charitable donations. Year's end has become a time for the family to establish their giving priorities for the year to come.

''It's a system in process," says Young, who has moved from participating in Resource Generation's activities to working as its program coordinator. ''My dad is involved in philanthropy, but there was no giving plan that was thought out. He and I are in conversation about that, about how to be more strategic."

''On several occasions in the last couple of years, Courtney has sat the family down and we've formulated strategies from the family's point of view about where we want to give. That's caused my business to get involved in affordable housing in northern Virginia, which we never were before," says Robert Young, 62, who made his fortune in commercial real estate development.

''From the family point of view, our giving was haphazard as opposed to the more organized approach that Courtney has put together. Everyone has a say. We try to direct our giving to a very targeted group that reflects everybody's individual concerns and interests."

Popular culture may be all about money -- about marrying wealthy or apprenticing wealthy or dressing wealthy or just being wealthy -- but Resource Generation's politically progressive participants are often uncomfortable with having fortunes in a world of misfortune.

Developed by six foundations, including the Haymarket People's Fund and Youth on Board, and a group of wealthy young people, Resource Generation works to help its participants come to terms with their privilege. Then, through workshops, campus outreach, and programs such as the annual ''Making Money Making Change" retreat, it gives them the tools to leverage that privilege. The group favors social change over social service -- preferring to support the community group working to lower emissions and idling at the nearby bus depot instead of simply giving money to help treat residents' asthma.

''There's so much in your face about the rich, the rich, the rich," says executive director Hez Norton, 32, who grew up middle class in Ohio and went to Duke on a volleyball scholarship. ''Resource Generation is a community of young people whose values are the opposite of what you see."

''Some of the people I knew at Resource Generation were college age who were once or twice a year flying to New York or Chicago to give away half a million dollars through their family foundations, then flying back to their schools to finish their chemistry exams," says Tracy Hewat, 39, Resource Generation's founding executive director, whose family made money on land sales. ''These were people who were not taken seriously in the context of their families because of their age but were not talking to their friends about it when they got back to school because they were afraid that the knowledge of their wealth would impact their primary relationships. We're not supporting these people. This is the funding for the left for the next 60 years."

Resource Generation counts 750 young people as participants, up from 200 in 2000. About 30 who responded to a survey at the group's annual retreat had access to $600 million. Though Resource Generation hasn't tracked its impact on giving, half the respondents to another survey said their charitable contributions had increased, and three-fifths said they'd learned more about their family's resources since being involved in the group.

Young and board member David Perrin, a 30-year-old artist and actor who now works for his family's foundation, are typical participants.

Young grew up in McLean, Va., the well-to-do Washington, D.C., suburb that is home to Ethel Kennedy and families of the elite. She traveled and went to private school. She was an accomplished equestrian. She is, she says, among the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, which means her personal wealth exceeds $5.8 million. She also saw firsthand in Washington, D.C., the inequities beyond her backyard. And being a lesbian, she says, gave her an outsider's perspective. ''I understood what it felt like to be marginalized," she says.

After college Young worked for the Boston Women's Fund. ''I ran into an internal conflict, that in order to put forward my social justice values I couldn't have the wealth and privilege I have," Young says. ''My history canceled out my values. I couldn't work for social justice if I came from the upper class. I couldn't be totally myself."

''I did not see her discomfort until she was a senior in college," her father says. ''It upset me a great deal initially because in some sense it appeared to me that she was resentful of what she had available to her. My feeling was I've worked all my life to try to provide for my children and my family, and now my daughter thinks it's a bad thing. It took a lot of conversation for me to understand what that was about and for her to understand. She had to learn to not hide the fact that she was from wealth and privilege but to put that to good use."

With Resource Generation's help, Young asked her family for particulars about their wealth and instigated a giving plan. She's forming a giving circle with some childhood friends in the hope they can together make contributions to causes they care about.

''I still have access to the power and privilege. I've accepted that reality," she says. ''It doesn't feel good to have such extraordinary access when most people don't. What does feel good is to accept that and be honest about that and work from that place."

Perrin, who moved recently from Mission Hill to New York City, knew his father's corporate work had made the family wealthy and knew they had a family foundation, but until his involvement with Resource Generation he understood little more than that. He, too, used to be uncomfortable with his background.

''I have worked for a range of nonprofit and social service organizations and often found myself unwilling, hesitant, and abashed to bring that side of myself to those relationships for fear it would change people's ideas about who I was, the quality of the work I would do, and the need I had to do that work," he says. ''Now I'm quite open about coming from a background of wealth and privilege. It's something I may not lead with, but it's something I'm more interested in sharing with someone in terms of being honest and developing a situation of trust."

Between one-quarter and one-third of Resource Generation's participants come from families with their own charitable foundations. The Perrin Family Foundation, based in Fairfield County, Conn., is a decade old. It gives away about $800,000 to $900,000 a year, mainly, Perrin says, to organizations serving children and youth.

''It was a way initially for my parents to professionalize their personal giving and develop a legacy of giving they could pass on to their kids," he says. He joined the foundation staff about 18 months ago as a program associate, and, he says, helped steer more giving to groups that work for social change. His mother is the foundation's president. ''It's challenging to work with my family," Perrin says, ''but the rewards are extra special because it feels like we're really accomplishing something as a family. We've had to put our personal issues aside in order to get our work done and be of benefit to the community."