Youths play old game of giving grants

Nine teenagers from the Rivers School in Weston, Mass., gathered in their cafeteria last Tuesday evening for an unlikely meeting. Munching on pizza, they mulled over the effectiveness of several charities for disabled youths in their community. An adult staff member of the Crossroads Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization in nearby Natick, mostly kept quiet as the teens talked.

Finally, the high-schoolers voted on which charities would receive grants totaling $10,000. The adult abstained.

The volunteer work for Crossroads "teaches me about the problems in my community and that I can do something to fix them," says Kelsey Clark, a junior at the Rivers School, who is not your average deep-pocketed director on a foundation board.

Indeed, the top ranks of philanthropists are moving beyond the blue-blooded. Increasing numbers of teenagers are being taught the fundamentals of charitable giving - deciding how to spend thousands of dollars, encouraging other youths to start service projects, and bird-dogging such projects to hold grant recipients to their promises. Although the youth-philanthropy movement is too new to tell for sure, early signs suggest it operates as a two-way street. Charities breed habits of giving early on. And youths sometimes turn their lives around dramatically, thanks in part to the charitable experience.

"For years we've asked young people to volunteer, and to be engaged in their communities, but we haven't given them meaningful roles," says Joel Orosz, a former program director at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich.

Now they do. In the late 1980s, Kellogg jump-started the youth philanthropy phenomenon with a $47.5 million endowment. It offered matching funds to community foundations across the state if they created boards of youths to make the grants.

Other foundations have replicated the Kellogg model. Now more than 350 similar programs, including some offered as high school courses, exist in more than 30 states and abroad.

Many foundation donors have an eye toward the increasing numbers of nonprofit board members who will soon retire, says Mr. Orosz, who was instrumental in developing the Kellogg youth project. And as baby boomers retire during the next few decades, they will transfer to young people some $30 trillion, the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in American history, says Robert Avery, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve.

But the bang is not just in the bucks. Teen grantmaking helps teach participants important skills. During the recent meeting with the "Rivers Givers" - as they call themselves - the teens dissected budget proposals and revealed their findings from carefully scrutinized site visits.

"The staff seemed totally disorganized," Kelsey Clark says of one charity, "and [one staff member] even said the money might go toward his own salary!" (On paper, the budget proposal indicated otherwise.)

Later in the meeting, Alix Parkinson, lone dissenter of the plan to divide the money between two charities instead of three, delivered a voice-quivering pitch: "But every bit of money helps!"

The majority wouldn't budge. "We don't want to give watered-down grants," replied Christian Clifford.

Teen grantmakers have given money to everything from teen-pregnancy forums to service projects for kids in homeless shelters to youth-run magazines. Likewise, the teenagers involved are a diverse bunch.

"We've had former gang members and dropouts serving on our youth board," says Tiffany Hill, program officer of the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley (CFSV), which aims to help at-risk kids.

Nancy DeNize was one such kid. By the time she entered high school, the San Jose, Calif., teen was a self-described "straight F student and a danger to humanity." The only "volunteering" she did was 50 hours of required community service at a local library. "My parents wouldn't even trust me with $10," she jokes.

But now she says she gets all A's and credits her transformation, in part, to the Youth in Philanthropy Program she volunteers at through the CFSV. "All of a sudden adults started trusting me," she says, "and it felt really good to do something to improve my community and show that kids can and want to make a difference."

As a result of her experience, she continues to volunteer at the local library well past her obligation. And she hopes to further her involvement by "serving on a nonprofit board and helping other Latina girls to turn around."

Youth philanthropy has its share of critics. "Some say kids don't have mature enough judgment to make grants, [or] that the adults involved are too controlling," says Orosz. Youth board decisions are usually approved by adults - "but there have only been a handful of cases where they've overruled the kids," he adds.

Of course, no one yet knows if many of today's young philanthropists will end up on nonprofit boards or donate time and treasure to charities later. Nor do charity professionals know the long-term benefits of the youths' pint-size grants.

But the programs are already having a profound effect on some. Witness Kari Pardoe, a recent college grad from Marshall, Mich. Her plans to take over the family office-supply business were derailed several years ago - on the day she and fellow youth philanthropists hand-delivered a $500 grant to a needy family.

Today, Ms. Pardoe is in graduate school studying nonprofit administration. She has given away more than $100,000 through teen philanthropy programs, served on several nonprofit boards, and even helped pass legislation in Michigan to lower the age requirements of voting nonprofit board members from 18 to 16. "I just love the feeling I get when I have made a difference in someone's life," she says.

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