Altering the Communal DNA through Youth Philanthropy

by Lisa Farber Miller

Working with Jewish teens, I have learned that philanthropists and others who control the purse strings and set the agenda don’t own the market on best instincts.

A few years ago, teens armed with dollars from Rose Youth Foundation made a grant to the University of Denver to support a year-long symposium on the Middle East conflict for high school students.

At the time, I didn’t think it was the smartest use of limited grant funds. I couldn’t imagine that busy teens would attend a weekly college class, and I wasn’t confident that it would attract enough sustained interest to make the investment worthwhile.

But I didn’t have a say in the matter. The teen grantmakers did. They passionately believed that teens want to engage intellectually about Israel. And, they proved me wrong – the class was so popular that it was oversubscribed.

The reality is we all see the world through different eyes. Central Jewish values of tikkun olam and tzedakah are organic concepts that morph according to need, place, time, and perspective.

Given the chance, teens can identify channels of real impact through a completely different prism. The Jewish community can either ignore that perspective, or harness it. But is there really a choice?

A just-released study of Rose Youth Foundation (RYF), an initiative of Rose Community Foundation, reveals just how teen philanthropy programs, in particular RYF, can positively alter the DNA of a young generation, and by extension, their communities.

Each year RYF convenes 23 Jewish youth in grades 10 to 12 from throughout the Denver-Boulder metro region and across the spectrum of Jewish observance, identity and experience.

For one academic year, they become a committee of grantmakers schooled in Jewish teachings, values and philanthropic strategies. The youth grant $60,000 to community organizations to tackle issues and challenges that are – in the eyes of the teens – compelling and imperative.

Ten years into the program, the study revealed the impact of the RYF model, with alumni reporting enhanced Jewish identity, deeper connection to Jewish community, strengthened leadership skills, and belief in their capacity to create positive change in their communities and beyond.

Since its inception, RYF, guided by the 150-plus participants, has granted more than $400,000 to nonprofit organizations in the Denver-Boulder metro area that address a host of needs. Some organizations are Jewish-focused and some are not, but each grant reflects how Jewish values, married with smart philanthropic analysis, can change lives, and enhance and strengthen community.

So a decade in, we have a report validating the promise of Jewish teen philanthropy.

Beyond the numbers though, the RYF spirit has infused the life of this community, organizationally and on the street.

Now it is a matter of fact for some local agencies, including ours, to turn to teens and engage their voices and opinions in matters of real decisions.

Why shouldn’t the board of our local Jewish film festival turn to a teen committee for guidance on how to make the event more appealing for youth? They do now. Why shouldn’t our former mayor and now Governor John Hickenlooper meet with RYF participants about his vision for ending homelessness in Denver? He did.

The RYF model presupposes a lot of things. That teens can be serious about Jewish values. That teens can allow these values to guide their visions. That teens can be leaders. That teens can learn how the tools of philanthropy and the power of the dollar can drive change.

I often speak about the power of Jewish teen philanthropy, in particular RYF, to grow and enhance community today, to recognize our youth for the Jewish leaders that they are now, and to create philanthropic ambassadors and practitioners for the future.

As we look for ways to encourage teens to participate in meaningful Jewish experiences, here are the lessons I’ve learned from the teens themselves:

  • We need to recognize that teens can offer solutions to the challenges faced by the Jewish community. They have dropped out of Jewish life because in many cases, we have failed to make Judaism compelling, meaningfully connected to their lives, and relevant to the issues they care about. We often fail to meet them where they are and address their needs for growth, new skills and real leadership opportunities.
  • Youth want authentic leadership opportunities and real influence. Young people are a current – not a deferred – source of insight and knowledge about issues affecting our communities.
  • Our youth can create the Jewish world in which they want to live, if we help them. They want to be agents of change. Their world is radically different than ours was when we were their age. Give them responsibility and set your standards high. They won’t disappoint you.
  • Institutions benefit by integrating youth into their core programming and opportunities. Teens often ask me why they are detoured into teen-only programs. They want ways to contribute now, to have access to adult opportunities, to interact meaningfully with adults and to make a difference in a Jewish way. Invite them to the table and view them as leaders for today, not just tomorrow.

We’re conditioned to believe that teenagers aren’t equipped to make adult decisions. Most of us believe that teens don’t yet have a worldview that allows them to engage in, sort out and address pressing community issues.

But the younger cohort, empowered with more than symbolic status around a board table, can lead us – and our communities – in compelling and unimagined directions.

The key findings of Rose Youth Foundation: Ten Years of Impact are available here. The full evaluation report is available here.
For a discussion of findings and implications of Rose Youth Foundation’s Ten- Year Impact report, join the Jewish Teen Funders Network Lunch & Learn call on Thursday, January 12 at 12:30 pm Eastern. For details and to RSVP, click here.

Lisa Farber Miller is Senior Program Officer, Rose Community Foundation.