Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

September 4, 2013

Lessons in youth engagement, philanthropy from motivated youth leaders

Special to Philanthropy Journal

Eric Rowles

What can a 15 year old teach you about philanthropy?

Apparently, a lot.  But you’ve got to be willing to listen first.

And to have an open mind on what giving means to this Millennial generation.

These were some of the lessons learned and reported at this year’s annual gathering of adult staff and volunteers who serve as the advisors to the 20-plus sites of the North Carolina Youth Giving Network (NCYGN).  The 2013 Advisor Training Institute was held on Aug. 22 at the North Carolina Community Foundation’s headquarters in Raleigh and facilitated by Leading To Change, the Charlotte-based training agency that coordinates the statewide NCYGN.

Since 2005, more than 1,200 young people in 25 counties involved with NCYGN have given 90,000 hours of service and raised more than $400,000 in community funds.  And after eight years of engaging young people across the state in philanthropic giving from Watauga to Wilmington, many of the adults behind the scenes have learned a couple of valuable lessons when it comes down to connecting and cultivating youth giving.

Youth leadership and civic engagement can take many forms – both in and out of the classroom.  Students in Wilkes County participate in three tiered levels of leadership – from a Chamber of Commerce-funded community engagement initiative (“UTA - United Teens In Action”) to a year-long grantmaking experience that provides a direct line of communication between 20-plus students and the superintendent (“T3LC - Time Talent Treasure Leading To Change”). 

In Northampton County, students at KIPP Gaston College Preparatory School are aligning their academic experiences in the classroom with the challenge of addressing real-world funding needs in their community.  Through a series of monthly trainings, these students (“YES – Youth of Extraordinary Spirits”) are not only learning how to craft, promote, review and then deliberate on a youth-focused RFP process; they are also being exposed to services and resources in the community that they might have never known about before.

A committed adult advisor is behind each of these initiatives to assist and guide active, hungry, wired and passionate student philanthropists.  From teacher who stays late to open their rooms once a week for the students to meet after school to community foundation officers who magically add “youth giving” as yet one more dish on their already full plate.

Not just anyone can work with and inspire youth to find their philanthropic voice.  Instead, great advisors must have a tremendous amount of passion, credibility and flexibility. They also must have an uncanny ability to “wrangle cats” amidst the fast-moving lives of these youth givers.

Here are 8 Lessons Learned in 8 Years of Youth Philanthropy. They come from the hard-working, youth-giving advisors at the Foundation For The Carolinas, The Winston-Salem Foundation, Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, Greater Greenville Community Foundation, Jackson County 4H, Boys & Girls Clubs of Pitt County, Wilkes County Schools and KIPP Schools.
8.  Take their opinions seriously. You have NO better expert in your community on youth issues than the young people themselves. Go to where they are at (don’t make them come to you) and really listen. And then be absolutely, brutally and concretely honest about what actions they can be involved with next. 

7.  Be patient. They’re young people. Double-check your expectations; what would you have been responsible for at the age of 14? Somewhere between their frenetic balancing of a full load of classes and a wired mindset that engages their friends on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, FourSquare, Tumblr and more – they found your program. And understand that this may not be a “money maker”… now. But you are cultivating an untapped donor base that embodies the concept of “paying it forward” in their very DNA. Your ROI may not be a larger endowment yet. But it’s worth waiting for.

6.  This is not your grandpappy’s philanthropy approach. Young people look at the world – and the ways that they can change it – through a completely different set of eyes. Be ready to try something new. Be ready to stretch! And understand that many have the expectation that this must be different, must be innovative and can’t rely on “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

5.  Quality over quantity every time. If only four people come to your meeting and you were expecting 20, get over it. Aim for quality in your grantmaking. Fund what is important, not the most number of grants that you can stretch in your pool. Seek quality in your relationships. Be genuine in your communications with them. Young people can sense fear and fake better than anyone else. And they will thrive on your authenticity.

4.  Expose them to more than just grantmaking. Go beyond the RFP. Make the process real by being open to want vs. need and have vs. have not. Help them see the economics of the world around you, the inequities and the abundances. Introduce them to aspects of their community they may not know, but should. Use the concept of “paying it forward” as a way to get them more involved in their school and community leadership.

3.  There's a fine line between pushing them and stepping back. Give them the power of making real decisions on the ways that they fund, allocate, grant, change, impact and even present to your community. Let them do the work while you give structure to help them find their voice.

2.  Food matters A LOT. Feed them. The community that you make with them means so much more than the pizza, but it remains a great incentive to get them to meet with you.

1.  Demystify giving. Rip the shroud off of “philanthropy.” Make sure they know that philanthropy is not exclusive to wealth. And that they, like so many others their age (including 1,200 youth in North Carolina alone) are riding a new wave of “giving” that will continue to create short and long term changes in our communities.

Eric Rowles is president of Leading To Change, a training organization that operates the North Carolina Youth Giving Network.

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