News and analysis
January 25, 2016

At Nexus, a Peek Into the Minds of Young, Wealthy Donors

Dave Moss is only 33 years old. But he’s already helped donate about $5 million.

The fourth-generation philanthropist’s family has given major gifts to institutions like Brandeis University, Colby College, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Growing up, he helped his grandmother with her giving, and he has since been involved in grant making and fundraising at nonprofits like the Slingshot Fund and the National Youth Rights Association.

Last year Mr. Moss created the Unfunded List, which critiques start-up nonprofits’ rejected grant proposals, distributes a list of the most promising organizations, and suggests alternative sources of funding.

"My Rolodex has significantly more currency in it than my bank account," Mr. Moss says.

In most settings, Mr. Moss’ story would be exceptional. At a recent Washington gathering of the scions of some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential families, it was just another in the crowd.

The Nexus USA Youth Summit is not your parents' philanthropy conference. The most recent iteration took place at the White House and the United States Institute of Peace over three days earlier this month, a networking bonanza that convened close to 200 young people with names like Bush and Tutu along with idealistic social entrepreneurs and impact investors.

The tone of the summit can only be described as buoyant — the young attendees very nearly bubbled over with do-gooder spirit.

Founded in 2011 by Rachel Cohen Gerrol and Jonah Wittkamper, Nexus now counts more than 3,000, mostly millennial members across 70 countries. It’s a project of the nonprofit Giving Back Fund, which helps set up donor-advised accounts for celebrity performers and athletes. In addition to the stateside gathering, the group has put on five global summits, the most recent in July at the United Nations.

Making Connections

Though some of the attendees don't yet have control over family wealth, many hail from philanthropic clans and may one day take over that role, fueling an interest in learning more about giving. At Nexus events, they have the chance to exchange ideas and build connections with social entrepreneurs who are developing new ideas and organizations.

"This process short-circuits traditional philanthropy," Mr. Wittkamper says. "Instead of the patriarch of the family or the wealth creator traditionally being the top decision-maker, the decision around how wealth gets spent democratizes."

That shift parallels the millennial mind-set, he says, as young people today are less institutional in their philanthropy.

Nexus membership is invitation-based, but the conferences have an open application process. For the recent Washington event, Nexus staff reviewed hundreds of applications that covered personal interests, academic and professional backgrounds, and family businesses.

Convening a diverse group is a priority, says Mr. Wittkamper. About two-thirds of attendees come from families with ultra-high net worth, generally defined as at least $30 million. The other third is made up of what Mr. Wittkamper calls "allies," which may include nonprofit employees, elected officials, and other young influencers.

Nexus aims to create a "safe space" to bridge those worlds.

"We are really trying to fight the notion of ‘affluenza,’" says Andrea Zucker, who was invited to join Nexus a year ago and now works on the organization’s staff. "There is this idea that growing up in a situation of wealth can actually be isolating and not lead to the social and emotional education that leads people to want to give."

Convening High-Net-Worth Progeny

So what, exactly, do you get when you assemble the descendants of the moneyed and powerful to talk 21st-century philanthropy? Discussion about everything from investing in ethical fashion to family foundation politics, it turns out, punctuated with heaps of positivity and lots of double air kisses.

"You all are here because you're very good at using your voices to influence those around you to make social change," Ms. Gerrol, the co-founder, told the group gathered January 13 to kick off the event. "You each have the hope and promise of our generation on your mind and in your hearts and you’re ready to take action."

"We’re not a summit where you come to be educated," she added. "We’re a community where your task is to find people and help accelerate their dreams and their passions."

No one was hitting up the young philanthropists for donations — Nexus has a strict no-solicitation policy at its events. Still, there was plenty of conversation about investment.

In a session about challenges and opportunities associated with the Syrian refugee crisis, for example, attendees pitched ideas for everything from web and mobile applications to concepts for entirely new organizations.

Nexus has produced a handful of success stories already. Organize, for example, is a nonprofit working to encourage organ donation through marketing campaigns and partnerships. The group was created and is supported by Nexus members.

A Roomful of Potential

The Nexus "delegates" spent one day in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building meeting with White House staff to explore topics like criminal justice reform and immigration.

Another day started with a meditation session guided by Mallika Chopra, Deepak Chopra's daughter, followed by TED Talk-like presentations.

Shaan Bhargava, the son of billionaire philanthropist and 5-Hour Energy creator Minoj Bhargava, spoke about his family's development of products like a bicycle that generates electricity for poor communities in India.

Another session, led by the grandsons of Ted Turner and Desmond Tutu, focused on the meaning of family legacy.

The world of Nexus participants is a small one. When Ms. Zucker, the staff member, introduced a short speech by Jeb Bush Jr., she noted that his father was that very day visiting her mother’s house in South Carolina.

Tom Chi, a co-founder of Google X, the tech company’s development lab, led a "rapid prototyping" session, where Nexus members critiqued several ideas for new organizations, businesses, and apps. He ended the day with heaps of praise for the gathering — and a warning.

"You guys have this kind of buzzing energy to do something great, to do something meaningful," he said. "The danger of that is the possibility that you’ll spend a lot of time saying kind things to each other and at the next conference, you’ll just talk about the same things again."

Send an email to Eden Stiffman.