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Teens Disburse Dollars to Make Change

By Lucia MouatSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 1996


"We're not trying to turn these young people into Andrew Carnegies or Stanley Kresges - that's not the idea," insists Dorothy Johnson, president of the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF). "The idea is for them to find other ways to give back to their communities. We can all give something."

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She is talking about the 1,200-plus teenagers here in Michigan who have been quietly assuming a powerful new role as community philanthropists.

Disbursing dollars to worthy causes has long been considered a job strictly for adults. But as communities become more diverse and corporations and other donors more mobile, grantmakers are looking for new ways to give more people a voice in improving their communities. And many see the enthusiasm of young people as a strong resource.

Under a special challenge grant from the Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation, more than 70 community foundations in this state have set up youth advisory committees (YACs) of 12-to 21-year olds. The young people, usually acting in small groups with an adult mentor, have voted to give away more than $2 million to local youth projects.

Programs run the gamut

The money has gone for everything from teen-pregnancy forums and violence-prevention efforts to family recreation programs.

Jene Rowe, a YAC member of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, says she and her colleagues have started a Saturday-night coffeehouse featuring poetry readings, music, and performances by local artists, including students. Using an existing youth center, she bought wood for the stage, persuaded local carpenters to cut it, and says that "kids galore" have volunteered to do the painting.

In the eight years since the project was first launched on a test basis, the number of community foundations in Michigan has more than doubled. By setting up a YAC and accepting the Kellogg challenge to raise $2 for every $1 received, each foundation is eligible for up to $1 million in a permanent youth endowment fund. So far Kellogg has given out $25 million for that purpose while the foundations have increased their own endowments for unrestricted giving by $50 million.

So sold is Michigan on the youths-as-grantmakers idea that the CMF and Kellogg cosponsored the first national conference on youth and philanthropy this summer. More than 800 people, three-fourths of them teens, met here last month to learn about other efforts and to persuade foundations elsewhere to consider the Michigan model.

Michigan YAC members concede that giving away other people's money is enjoyable. "Believe me, if it wasn't fun, I wouldn't be doing it," says Jeffrey Holmes of Flint. Yet the teen donors also say the job is far more challenging than it sounds. They must first go back to their high schools to survey fellow students on priorities. They have to be trained, review myriad fund proposals, ask the tough questions of applicants, and decide why one proposal merits acceptance over another. They must write letters to those they turn down, giving reasons.

"The big thing we look for is how many volunteers they have and how much they want to do," explains Matthew Phillips, a YAC member of Michigan's Jackson Community Foundation. "Often we look for groups that haven't been given money before."

He and his colleagues must make the case for their grant decisions before an adult board. The MCF's Mrs. Dorothy Johnson says none of the grants have been challenged by an adult.