Teens Disburse Dollars to Make Change

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

"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."

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.

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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.

So what do the high schoolers get out of all this?

"For me, it's been a very rewarding, life-changing experience," says Jeanie Ringelberg, a four-year YAC member of the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, which has given more than $90,000 to varied youth projects. "In meetings you have to point out what you disagree with but you learn to respect each other's opinions.... It gives you pride to improve things and make changes in other people's lives."

Jeanie now gives a small portion of her summer salary as a state park ranger to her church and other charities. "I probably wouldn't have thought of giving before, but I've seen $5 and $10 make a difference," she says.

"This experience has given me insight into the way things are run, it helps young people, and it's motivated me to go on and do more," says Marieo Henry, a YAC member of the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan. Marieo, who aspires to high government office ("I love politics"), has been a volunteer since the sixth grade in everything from tutoring to helping out in the Detroit mayor's office. Senior citizens are his favorite. "They help me with my problems, and I help them see that not all youths are bad."

Most Michigan foundations want a broad racial, ethnic, and economic mix on their youth advisory committees. Some include youths who have served time in jail. One of these helped persuade the others to fund a mediation training program for young people to help resolve disputes by talk rather than violence.

"These young people all learn from each other," says CMF vice president Rob Collier. "Promoting diversity is a wonderful way to build a community."

Of course, some special considerations are taken into account. When the Rockford Community Trust in Illinois decided to set up a new program run by young people to fund youth-designed and operated projects, for example, at least one meeting had to be held at 6 a.m. to accommodate student schedules, and executive director Gloria Lundin says she realized early on the importance of having pizza and potato chips at every meeting. One positive ripple effect of Rockford's effort has been a new effort by adult-dominated youth-service projects to directly involve young people in seeking funds.

A new wrinkle

The effort to involve more young people directly in grantmaking is a "new wrinkle" in the longstanding practice of improving communities by youth volunteer work, says Gregory Barnard, a spokesman for the Council on Foundations in Washington, D.C. "It's a good idea, and I think a lot of people are trying to jump on it," he says.

Many young people now making grant decisions may never have much money of their own to share. Yet Mr. Barnard notes that the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in American history is expected to occur within the next few decades as baby boomers begin to retire. Six years ago, Cornell University economist Robert Avery predicted that, by the year 2010, as much as $8 trillion may be passed down from Americans over age 50 to children and grandchildren.

And young people are logical candidates to become philanthropists. "You always think about the Rockefellers and the Fords and other high muckity-mucks," says New York City's Linda Frank. "Yet we all have the potential to be philanthropists. This is not about money. It's about caring for humanity."

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