Supporting Switzerland’s next generation of philanthropists

27 June 2022

Interview conducted by Juliet Agnew, Head of Philanthropy, Barclays Private Bank

Pauline Borg is Philanthropy Initiatives Coordinator at ‘WISE philanthropy advisors’, a Geneva-based firm that specialises in high-impact philanthropy by helping to set up foundations, advising on causes, and delivering projects in the field. Originally from Finland, she was raised in Switzerland and has also lived in the UK. Her own family has been involved in philanthropy for many generations, and she sits on the board of one of their foundations.

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Pauline, why is it important to support the next generation in their philanthropy?

There’s going to be an important transfer of wealth from one generation to the next over the next 10 to 20 years. This will lead to challenges for those receiving the wealth, but also amazing opportunities to use some of these resources to do good. Part of WISE’s mission is to support members of the next generation so they feel ready to contribute.

How do you define the next generation?

In our context, the next generation are 18 to 35-year-olds. Some of the training we offer is geared primarily towards that age group as they can be the ones in need of the most help or guidance. Of course, people of other ages can be considered as next generation and we offer them guidance too. 

How is the next generation seeing and doing things differently?

The younger generation has grown up with technology and is very aware of different issues around the world. This probably makes them more hands-on than their parents or grandparents. They hold companies and governments to account, and there's a sense that action needs to be taken to make the world a better place.

Can philanthropy help to bridge divides between generations?

It definitely can if the generations identify a common project. Uniting around a common passion can really help family members better identify with each other.

Sometimes it’s difficult to bridge the divide and a lot of assumptions can be made between family members. The next generation often assumes their parents have a certain way of thinking, while parents make the assumption that their children want to be involved in the philanthropy that they've set up, for example. Too often the discussions don’t take place. Having open and honest conversations, practising active listening and being open-minded are vital.

Is philanthropy just about money?

There’s been a real democratisation of philanthropy. It’s no longer about being one of the lucky few who has the means to deploy vast sums to further a cause. One can have great impact deploying limited funding but doing so incredibly strategically. Philanthropy today is about using your voice, your talent, pulling on the right levers and influencing people, in addition to using financial means. Once the next generation understands this, that's when things can really start happening.

Have the events of the past couple of years affected the next generation’s outlook?

Major events such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are going to affect behaviours, of course. But they’re not the only issues. The world is going through a crisis in food systems, and the issue that probably weighs most on the shoulders of the next generation is climate change. These individuals often find themselves in a moral conflict between what they should be doing for the environment and something that they’ve always wanted to do such as travelling or having children, for example.

Should philanthropists concentrate on one topic?

It helps a lot if philanthropists focus on one, or a small number of issues, that they really care about, and try to really understand the root causes. Everything is interconnected, so we suggest that one looks at the wider picture surrounding the issue. Take someone funding food distribution initiatives in schools where children go hungry – this is not addressing the reason they're turning up hungry. One family that we’ve worked with from Lausanne is concentrating on funding sustainable initiatives in South East Asia. These focus on the employability of at-risk youth by providing them with vocational training to then help them find a safe and appropriate employment.

And should they consider working alongside others?

Our work is primarily to support families in identifying their causes – leading independent conversations and joint workshops to help build a common passion. Once this passion is found and established, collaboration can and, in my view should, be a vital part of the work. Being a philanthropist can be quite isolating, but there are many communities of donors and advisers.

If others are interested in similar topics, why not pool funding? Share intelligence? Do due diligence jointly? This can lead to building on what’s already been done, and also achieve a higher and more scalable impact.

What’s WISE’s role as an adviser to families?

For the past 20 years, we have helped families understand their family dynamics across generations, understand best practices, and facilitate what can sometimes be difficult conversations. In a second step, we support families in their journey to identify and build a portfolio of projects to support over time, based on their common passions. Through this process, we can also aim to include the next generation in conversations that enable them to feel heard and legitimate in being part of the conversations.

Having an external adviser as part of the initial and ongoing conversations helps families steer the conversations in a constructive and efficient manner, and gives everyone the opportunity to voice their opinions. This is something that may not always be the case if these conversations take place solely between family members.

Our role is to help family members understand each other, find their common passion, and ultimately become more impactful philanthropists.

How are you helping next gens in Switzerland?

At WISE, we run something that we call the next-gen boot camp, which is for young people whose families are already involved in, or considering getting started in philanthropy. It takes place over three days in the Swiss countryside with young people aged 18 to 30. The aim is to help these young adults understand their role and added value in being involved in their family’s existing or aspiring philanthropy, even though they might not be the source of its money. We talk about the importance of time, treasure and talent.

This year we also launched a training scheme with two partners covering all of Switzerland called Foundation Board Academy. This is related to the question of good governance in foundation boards because Switzerland has more than 13,000 foundations, with approximately 69,000 people sitting on boards. Whether it be family-related or not, you must understand your legal, administrative, and financial duty, and responsibility of being a sitting board member.

We’ve observed the need for diversity on foundation boards, whether in terms of gender or age. To address this, we contributed to the launch of a fund called Board for Good that distributes grants to applicants aged 18 to 35, to partake in the Foundation Board Academy. This is also our way of enabling the younger generations to get involved and build their networks, but also to voice their opinions and share their sometimes provocative questions.

What would you recommend to any next-generation philanthropist who is feeling a bit overwhelmed?

The current state of the world can feel overwhelming. One needs to be pragmatic in their approach, there are many resources and advisers there to help. If you want to get started in philanthropy, you need to identify what you’re passionate about, or something that makes you really angry. We're not going to save the world as individuals, but with the help of technology, the growing understanding of the importance of strategic funding, and of large-scale systems change, it is definitely possible to positively affect the lives of people in the field where you want to make a difference. 

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