Making Philanthropy Cool for Teens

How one Jewish leader is fighting materialism, and making the concept of philanthropy appealing to teen girls

by Stefanie Zelkind

We were a small group, six women in our late 20s and six teenaged girls. We weren’t especially rich or powerful, and lacked experience in strategic philanthropic giving. What we had, though, was more important: we shared a commitment to giving tzedakah, we trusted in the power of our collective wisdom and experience, and we believed in our ability to effect social change.

Our tzedakah collective, “No Small Change,” met monthly from October 2000 through May 2001. Our goals were twofold: the “external” goal was for each group member to contribute to a shared grant-making pool ($10 per session for adults and $5 for girls) and then for us to make decisions as a collective about which organizations to support. The “internal” goal was to create space and time for us to explore issues around money, values, gender, social change, leadership, community, and philanthropy. We created a curriculum to help us reflect on our identities as Jewish women and teens and our relationships to money, and ultimately developed a sense of ourselves as a collective. At the end of the year, we chose to donate our pooled funds to Nisan-Young Women Leaders, a leadership program for Jewish and Arab girls in Israel.

We were not the first group to unite for the purpose of giving. We were not the first tzedakah collective to give through a Jewish lens, and we were not the first group of women to engage in women’s philanthropy. We were, however (to the best of my knowledge), the first group to bring together young Jewish women and teenage girls for the purpose of learning about and engaging in collective hands-on giving. Why was this unique pairing important? And how did the participants – teens and adults – benefit from this distinctive approach to philanthropy? I believe the success of “No Small Change” stemmed from the group’s ability to:

  • Provide a Safe Women-and-Girls-Only Space to ask questions and share thoughts about money, gender, and power. From discussions about our parents’ roles vis-à-vis family financial decisions to explorations of our own feelings about money, we were able to voice discomfort around money topics. We spent a lot of time addressing “big questions” about our core values and how they informed our spending and giving, both as individuals and a community. The open-ended nature of our discussions was especially valuable to the teen members of our group, who welcomed the chance to think aloud in an environment so different from the true/false, yes/no, and pass/fail dichotomies of school. We transformed superficial “girl talk” into honest and meaningful conversations.
  • Create Real Teen-Adult Partnerships in which teen group members shared responsibility for planning and running sessions with the adult members. At our first session, we created a “buddy” system, pairing each woman with one teen. These pairings, part “mentor-mentee” relationship and part friendship, created a unique opportunity for the girls to connect with someone older (but not as old as their moms). In between sessions, we’d often have an informal “buddy check-in” phone call. It was a new, and gratifying, dynamic for women and girls alike. We didn’t fit into the mold of teachers and students, counselors and campers, or mothers and daughters; we also weren’t a group of friends (although by the end of the year, many of us had developed special friendships). We related to each other as true partners, appreciating the skills, experience, and ideas that each of us brought to the table.
  • Trust Teenagers with Real Money and Real Responsibilities. They can’t drive. They can’t vote. They can’t make many big decisions on their own; parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives (too) often call the shots. So it’s no surprise that teenagers crave responsibility and yearn to be taken seriously by adults. Through the tzedakah collective, teen group members were given significant responsibilities, from donating money each session to conducting research on organizations for funding consideration. The teens were expected to show up to sessions prepared and on time, and to participate fully in all discussions and decisions. The very act of giving away money – and not just her own individual money, but a pool consisting of all twelve member’ money – called on each collective member to take our work, and each other, seriously. And we stressed the value of giving at any level, modeling through our process that philanthropy is not only for older people or the mega-rich (or men).

“No Small Change” was a one-year pilot program, run on a very modest budget and our volunteer efforts. While we considered it to be a huge success, we were not able to continue running the program, as members of the group were moving to new cities, taking on new jobs, and exploring new directions in their lives. However, we wanted to share our experience with other women and girls and encourage others to create similar tzedakah collectives of their own. To that end we wrote a resource guide chronicling our curriculum and group process, as well as lessons learned along the way, which is available for free download.

Thanks in large part to my experience in “No Small Change,” today I serve as the Director of Youth Philanthropy at the Jewish Funders Network. In this role, I oversee the Jewish TEEN Funders Network, an association of 82 Jewish teen philanthropy programs throughout North America. These programs are for both boys and girls, ages 13-18, and incorporate many of the components of “No Small Change” regarding values clarification exercises, collective decision-making, philanthropic giving, and teen leadership.

As mixed-gender groups, these Jewish teen philanthropy programs don’t lend themselves to the same sorts of gender lens discussions we had in “No Small Change”; as teen-only groups, they don’t offer the teen-adult “buddy” pairings that we enjoyed in our collective. But they do provide other, equally important opportunities for teens: in these programs, teenage girls have the chance to try on various leadership roles in a mixed setting, building self-confidence and poise. Girls and boys alike are given the respect and responsibilities they hunger for, all too rare in the rest of their teenage lives, as they dedicate themselves to making a difference through the collective grantmaking process. They examine what it means to “give Jewishly” and work together to prioritize issues and values to guide their giving.

Teens want to serve, to help those less fortunate, and to bring about change in the world—and they are doing so in huge numbers. Nearly 60% of teens in the United States are involved in service and philanthropic activities in their communities. Miley Cyrus just launched a new service campaign in partnership with Youth Service America, and the number of local Jewish teen philanthropy programs continues to grow. The field of Jewish teen philanthropy will continue to experiment with different program models and methods of teaching young people about, and engaging them in, philanthropy. We want our teens to start out on their life-long journeys of Jewish giving with a deep understanding that when it comes to their potential to make a difference, there is no small change.

Stefanie Zelkind is the Director of Youth Philanthropy at the Jewish Funders Network. In this capacity, Stefanie oversees the Jewish TEEN Funders Network, a central resource for the burgeoning youth philanthropy movement among Jewish teens throughout North America. Stefanie has over a decade of professional experience in the Jewish communal sector. She completed a double Masters Degree in Nonprofit Management and Judaic Studies at New York University.

This article originally appeared in 614: HBI eZine – an online magazine published by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to spark conversation among young Jewish women about hot topics relevant to their lives. Reprinted with permission.

For more on Jewish teen philanthropy, check out Get Them Young: The Emerging Jewish Teen Philanthropy Movement.

image courtesy Karen Pike Photography