Teen Philanthropy as A Catalyst for Change

by Sue Schwartzman

The January 25 Huffington Post article titled, “Philanthropy: College Students Get $100,000 To Give Away to Charity” lauds universities starting philanthropy courses that offer students practical philanthropy experience, such as giving them up to$ 100K to give away to worthy nonprofits. While I applaud Universities for recognizing the importance philanthropy, it is essential to point out that young people involved in philanthropy is not a new endeavor, nor is it something that is ideally saved for college level studies.

As a philanthropic educator, I have helped launch three high powered youth philanthropy programs in the San Francisco Bay Area, and seen the abilities of grant-makers as young as thirteen. This generation of computer savvy youth is exposed to local and world problems daily and is compelled to act. Institutions serving youth need only to provide curricular and programmatic options that give the kids a vehicle to make change happen and then let them run with it. Youth philanthropy is not small business: in 2000, youth-led groups donated $5-10 million.

In 2004, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund started the Jewish Teen Foundations, a program for high school-aged youth who learn to run their own non-profit foundation and become strategic grant makers and fundraisers for issues they care about. The program has trained five hundred teens and raised over one million dollars. These kids raise funds for causes they care about and practice the business skills needed to evaluate grant proposals and make good grants. They develop skills that enable them to be serious philanthropists for life, not just the duration of the program. Allison Hargreaves, a Jewish Teen Foundation Board Member in 2004-2005, now a college graduate, commented, “The Jewish Teen Foundations acted as a stepping stone for understanding how philanthropy and grant-making work in the real world. It was incredibly powerful to see what impact we as a group of 15 year olds had on issues that we deemed important.”

Additionally, seventh graders in Jewish Day schools, synagogues, and Jewish Community Federation programs around the country are mobilizing Bar and Bat Mitzvah funds for social good. As part of curricular standards, students research nonprofits doing work, and classes act as an allocations committee to decide where their money should go. Students who did this program with me at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, CA, were empowered to make differences: “It was an eye-opening experience because I was introduced to a lot of problems in the world and found out how hard people work to fight these problems. I got a chance to connect with an organization that meant a lot to me and make a difference.” Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School’s seventh grade class gives out over $45,000 annually to nonprofits.

Youth philanthropy is important program for youth of all socio-economic levels. I partnered with Amy Johnson from Classroomsforchange.com and a school in East Palo Alto called Eastside College Prep, where 100% of the kids are on scholarship, to try a middle school philanthropy project. We learned that when kids are given the community responsibility of dispersing funds, they begin to see their power and potential for being agents for change. They learn that community listens to them, that there are needs greater than their own, and that each action they take has collective impact and makes a difference.

There are a myriad of excellent youth philanthropy programs that exists in regions across the country: the Rose Youth Foundation in Denver, the JYPI program in Washington DC, Project Give at Eastside College Prep, SV2 Foundation teens. Additionally, the Jewish Teen Funders Network connects Jewish Youth Philanthropy programs and encourages best practices. These programs are propelling our teenagers into philanthropic community roles while they are still in their home communities.

With world news unfolding in the palm of their hand, this one-touch, see all, generation of youth are not waiting until college to be agents for change and philanthropists. They are showing the adult philanthropic world is this generation is motivated, trained, and ready to tackle the world’s problems. No waiting until college necessary.

Sue Schwartzman is Director of Youth Philanthropy and Philanthropic Education at the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Sonoma Counties.