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Beyond Zero-Sum Choices: The Promise of Funding Intergenerational Equity Solutions

Children and youth are at the very top of many funders’ grantmaking strategies today, as foundation boards look to the future and strive toward better days ahead. There’s a certain optimism associated with youth funding that appeals to donors across the spectrum and provides common ground that everyone can rally around.

Meanwhile, though, the American population is rapidly aging and a growing number of seniors face economic hardship and social isolation. Funding in this critical area has never been very robust, so stepping up grantmaking here is critical, too.

How can philanthropy avoid a zero-sum mentality that pits funding for youth versus funding for seniors? One answer lies in the surprising ways that youth needs and senior needs are interconnected.

Los Angeles is a great example of how these connections between generations play out. Surveys estimate that the L.A. County population will have 40 seniors for every 100 people of working age by the year 2040 due to the declining birth and immigration rates. This means that the working population will need to bear twice the load of their elders than they do today in terms of in-home services, transportation and healthcare needs.

At the same time, there are around 20,800 children in foster care in L.A. County and only 12 percent of high school freshmen are going on to graduate from college. L.A.’s young people badly need help and guidance. With huge needs on both ends of the age spectrum, a growing body of research suggests that if we find a way to connect these disparate populations, everyone can benefit—economically, intellectually and socially.

For the Eisner Foundation, the only funder in the country that prioritizes intergenerational solutions, bringing kids and seniors together is more than just a nice idea. It’s way to make communities more accessible and equal, and a new strategy for advancing grantmaking through an equity lens. By focusing on two vulnerable populations at the same time, youth and the elderly, this foundation is seeking to change the way social services are approached in Los Angeles County.

Back in April, the Eisner Foundation announced $1.5 million in new grants to eight intergenerational programs. One thing that all of those new grantees had in common is that they all addressed inequality and justice in some way. Those grants supported programs at the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the Armory Center for the Arts, CASA of Los Angeles, Mothers’ Club Family Learning Center, ONEgeneration, P.S. ARTS and School on Wheels. But the largest grant of that round of $600,000 went to Eisner Health to fund a new Intergenerational Health Center in Sherman Oaks, and provide primary care, prenatal and postpartum care, family planning services, and dental care for all ages.

“These organizations continue to demonstrate the potential of intergenerational programs,” said Trent Stamp, CEO of the Eisner Foundation. “We are particularly pleased to see new ideas from some of our longtime partners incorporating intergenerational initiatives into their work.”

In the second quarter of 2017, the foundation committed another $525,000 to five intergenerational programs in Los Angeles. The grants weren’t as many or as large, but they still tell an interesting story. In fact, the largest recent grant went to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, which is a group that we’ve been keeping a close eye on around town, lately. The Mayor’s Fund secured a $150,000 grant from Eisner to support its Summer Night Lights program, which strives to benefit youth, seniors, and everyone in between.

Other recent Eisner funding went to the Friendship Foundation, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Reading Partners, and the Venice Family Clinic. Through this grantmaking round, Eisner is bringing Los Angeles youth and seniors together through mentoring programs, literacy efforts, musical performances, and medical volunteering.

So why aren’t other foundations taking this dual youth/seniors approach to social service grantmaking yet?

That’s a good question. One reasons, perhaps, is that intergenerational strategies just haven’t received much attention in the nonprofit and funding worlds, though academics have undertaken quite a bit of research in this area. Some good research resources include the Duke Center for Population Health and AgingPenn State’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education and Center for Healthy Aging, and the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships.

Ideas for funding opportunities include day care centers that accommodate both young children and seniors to reduce overhead costs, and recruiting court-appointed senior-aged advocates to counsel youth in the juvenile justice system. Arts programs that engage senior volunteers for children’s creativity programs and connecting homeless youth with senior volunteers for tutoring and mentorship are other opportunities for funders to consider.

The Eisner Foundation is overseen by Michael Eisner, the former Disney chief, and his family. It typically gives around $7 million per year to nonprofits in Los Angeles County. To date, it has not expressed an interest in taking its approach nationwide.