Course adds branches to the 'giving' tree

It's a lot harder to give away money than I thought," Abby Wolbe proclaims.

A rising senior at a private school in Atlanta, Abby is taking a crash course in philanthropy this summer.

As she and her fellow students hit the books, the real focus is a practical matter: How to give away the $500 they've each been entrusted with.

Americans have a long tradition of philanthropy and volunteerism. But it's only recently that groups have gotten serious about teaching young people how the world of wealth distribution works.

Community foundations are increasingly asking youth advisory boards to help decide how the money gets spent. The teens' diverse perspectives add a freshness to decisionmaking, and in exchange they pick up skills that will come in handy whether they become CEOs, construction workers, or community activists.

"There's an extraordinary growth in philanthropic capital with the strong economy," says Charles McTier, president of the Woodruff Foundation, which has $3.5 billion in assets and is the largest foundation in Atlanta.

"Philanthropy" may sound like an SAT word to high-schoolers, but Mr. McTier notes that many younger people, particularly those involved in the technology industry, have tremendous wealth to share.

Experts also say the next few decades will see the biggest intergenerational transfer of wealth in United States history, so it's not surprising that schools are starting to get in on the trend.

The course is run by the The Westminster Schools, one of the oldest private schools in Atlanta. The coordinators believe the philanthropy course to be the first of its kind.

It has its origins in a gift to the school. The anonymous benefactor had children at Westminster, and believed the students there -many of whom may hold leadership positions in the future -needed to know how to give back to the community.

The four-week class for rising seniors delves into the history of philanthropy, the types and structures of nonprofit organizations, and the psychology and motives of giving. It incorporates readings such as Andrew Carnegie's "The Gospel of Wealth," guest speakers, and field trips to more than a dozen foundations and nonprofit organizations around Atlanta.

"With the increasing number of foundations, we want the students to become thoughtful, educated givers - rather than just reacting to marketing strategies," says Sally Finch, a history and economics teacher at Westminster and director of Philanthropy 101.

"We want to help them learn about different organizations so they can make the best investment for their dollars," adds Stan Moor, Westminster's community-services director.

The donor who established the course also offers an additional stipend of $700, money students can keep themselves or give away, to compensate them in case they give up summer jobs to take the class.

The majority of students at Westminster do participate in community service, though it is not required as it is in some schools. But Mr. Moor hopes this course will highlight new local volunteer opportunities.

Westminster students who were involved in community service already, or those who simply wanted to learn more about how to serve, went through an interview before the course. The resulting class consists of four boys and four girls.

Choosing which nonprofit groups to support was a matter of much discussion and deliberation for the students. After visiting a horse park in north Atlanta, John Weitnaur, who rode horses when he was younger, decided to donate $600 to a therapeutic riding program in Atlanta.

The program serves riders with cognitive, physical, or emotional disabilities and inner-city and at-risk children. "This group really needs the money, and they work with kids in the community," says John, who gave $100 above what was required in order to buy the group a saddle in honor of his mother.

Lindsay Reed, on the other hand, is flowing her money into the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeepers, a group that works to protect the source of almost 70 percent of Atlanta's water. "I've grown up along the Chattahoochee - it's in my backyard. I have a passion for the outdoors and this river," she says.

Lindsay and several other students who have volunteered to help sort cans at the Atlanta Food Bank also are donating $50 each. "Every dollar we give will help provide six meals," she says.

According to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel, giving by individuals, corporations, and foundations is on the rise. And so is the awareness level of students like Harrison Davis, who says he's learned a lot about how charities use money.

While he realizes that some groups would not consider $500 a big donation, Harrison wants to put his money where "it will do the most good."

So he's chipping in to the Atlanta Youth Academy, a small inner-city school with a tight budget. From volunteering as a tutor at the school, he says he's seen that "the kids work hard, and they really want to learn."

The course leaders found it difficult to decide on guest speakers and places to visit. They did get help from the book "Harvard Business Review on Nonprofits." But as more people have learned about the new course, Ms. Finch says she's been swamped with phone calls from interested nonprofit organizations.

"Groups - including a canine assistance program looking for puppy raisers - are sending us information to distribute and inviting us to come to their facility or center," she says.

Peter Rooney, director of development at Westminster, has had calls from several colleges interested in learning more about teaching philanthropy. And he's talked with an investment house in New York that is interested in offering a similar philanthropy course to its wealthier clients.

The teachers are excited that their course could be a model for others. The hope, Moor says, is that "the next generation will give from the heart, and the course will be the beginning of many donations and lifelong giving."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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