(This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of SSA Magazine.)

The New Philanthropy

Wealthy young progressives are organizing around an innovative model for advancing social justice

Young people from the highest tax brackets who care about social justice are finding ways to reconcile their money and their values by using a community organizing model that takes them beyond simple philanthropy.

An article in the June 2012 Social Service Review describes the work of Resource Generation, a small group of wealthy young progressives that formed in 1997 and now has chapters in many American cities. Resource Generation consists of young people who typically have inherited wealth or enjoy access to it, often through family foundations. The organization promotes what Laura Wernick, an assistant professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service and the study’s author, calls “empowered citizenship.”

Wealthy progressives have often had an uneasy relation to social justice movements. They typically have acted as removed financial underwriters or concealed their wealth when taking part as organizers, activists or journalists. Such involvement has its limits, Wernick says. Those who conceal their wealth may not be making full use of their connections and influence. And simply writing checks, she says, fails to address issues of “power, control and decision-making inequities inherent in philanthropy.”

Members also face more personal dilemmas. “[W]ell-connected, highly educated, (sometimes) overconfident and entitled,” they find themselves feeling “fearful, isolated, and guilt-ridden,” Wernick says. 

Resource Generation’s approach is to bring members together to examine issues of wealth and privilege and to strategize about how to work for change. It also organizes campaigns, including one to promote fairer tax policies in the United States. And although its membership is restricted to the wealthy, Resource Generation is careful to include the non-wealthy in all aspects of its work, including decision making.

Wernick says there is a growing tradition of privileged individuals coming together to advance social justice. One example is Oakland-based Catalyst, an organization of whites who have come together to support local communities of color.

Resource Generation builds upon the Transformative Organizing (TO) model of community organizing. TO differs from the classic organizing of Saul Alinsky in that it seeks fundamental change within individuals, institutions and society, building what Wernick describes as “the ability to perceive oppression, power and privilege in social, political and economic forms, and to act against oppressive societal elements.”

Wernick’s study describes Resource Generation as a new and promising organizing model. Another part of her research examines its efficacy and concludes that it works. “Most organizers working on the national level know about this group and have a considerable amount of respect for it,” she says. “They’re doing really important and exciting work.”

Laura J. Wernick. 2012. “Leveraging Privilege: Organizing Young People with Wealth to Support Social Justice.” Social Service Review 86 (2): 323-45.