Turning the Season of Giving into a Lifetime of Leadership

by Stefanie Zelkind

As Hanukkah approaches, parents and educators are challenged to get beyond the presents and the hype and make the holiday meaningful.

Many try to shift the focus from receiving to giving, as children organize toy drives, teenagers volunteer at soup kitchens, and families shop together to buy presents for those in need.

But Hanukkah is only eight days long. Aren’t we selling our children short to teach them that giving is only important during Hanukkah? While the holiday serves as a timely call to action, our efforts to engage young people in giving must not stop when the season fades.

A new study commissioned by Denver’s Rose Community Foundation, Rose Youth Foundation, Ten Years of Impact: Jewish Teens Engaged in Grantmaking and Leadership, highlights the power of teaching kids about giving through a hands-on philanthropic experience. Rose Youth Foundation (RYF) is one of dozens of Jewish teen philanthropy programs established throughout North America over the past decade.

By engaging in a strategic and collective grantmaking process, teens in these programs have a unique opportunity to ask some of the hard questions that we adults struggle with: What defines Jewish giving? Which Jewish values most resonate with me? What responsibilities do we have as Jews to support the wider communities of which we are a part? How do we make the greatest impact with limited resources?

Teens work as a group, often pooling money they themselves raised or contributed to a shared grantmaking pool, identify giving priorities, and gain real-life experience in negotiating the challenging work of consensus and group process. They examine what our Jewish texts and traditions teach about giving, so it will be informed and shaped by Jewish values.

And, at the end of the day, they give away real money to support real organizations doing important work in their communities.

While the study evaluates Rose Youth Foundation specifically, it confirms what those of us involved in the growing field of Jewish teen philanthropy have intuitively known and, until now, had only anecdotal evidence to prove. The report shows that Rose Youth Foundation successfully strengthens Jewish identity, creates changemakers, teaches collaboration and leadership, instills a strong commitment to volunteering, and leads alumni to stay involved in Jewish life.

In responding to the Rose Youth Foundation survey, an alumnus wrote, “Participating in RYF definitely gave me a much better sense of my Jewish identity. Because of this I now think of my Judaism as a means to better the world.”

Nearly all of his fellow RYF alumni (92 percent) share this belief that they can be agents of positive change in their communities. This bodes well for all of us: these young people – already leaders in their teens – will be at the forefront of our communities in the next 10, 20, or 30 years.

The primary beneficiaries of Jewish teen foundations are, of course, the teen participants. But the reach of Jewish teen philanthropy programs extends well beyond the teen foundation board.

As the Rose study documents, the impact of Jewish teen foundations has a ripple effect, radiating out from the teens to their families, who can now engage in substantive and meaningful conversations about their giving and Jewish values, to the organizations that serve as hosts and conveners of these programs, to the nonprofit agencies that receive funding from the teens, and even to the nonprofits that don’t end up receiving funding but do receive a site visit from a group of teen funders.

Ultimately, the broader Jewish community stands to gain from the growing number of active teen foundation members and alumni – young people who are involved, eager to learn, capable, ready to serve in a range of leadership roles, and full of creativity, energy, and enthusiasm.

There are 51 Jewish teen foundations across North America. Last year alone, these programs brought together more than 1,200 teens in hands-on giving and awarded over $750,000 in grants. The field of Jewish teen philanthropy is growing as community leaders, educators, parents, and funders come to appreciate the value proposition of teen philanthropy programs.

The Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN) – created in 2006 thanks to the vision and support of the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, the Estelle Friedman Gervis Family Foundation, and the Shechtel Philanthropies – serves as a central resource, building connections between and among local program leaders, facilitating resource-sharing, developing “best practices,” and providing training and support.

JTFN has been working with national and local partners to pilot various iterations of Jewish teen foundations, in different organizational settings and budget ranges, in order to help community leaders find the “right fit” for Jewish teen philanthropy in their locale.

The Rose Youth Foundation report – one of the first of its kind – underscores the immense power of thoughtful giving now and throughout the year. As we celebrate Hanukkah, may the lights of the menorah ignite in all of us a long-term commitment to give and to educate our Jewish youth about being active practitioners of this central and driving Jewish value.

Stefanie Zelkind is Director of Youth Philanthropy and Jewish Teen Funders Network, Jewish Funders Network.

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