The very rich and the very famous capture the headlines for their charitable giving. But another group of avid philanthropists is also leaving its mark. Young people from grade school on are engaged as never before in making a direct difference in the world. They are donating via the Internet to favorite projects overseas, creating their own nonprofits to pursue social causes, and becoming grantmakers on foundation boards to foster change in their home communities.
"It has become a value for young people to be personally involved," says Claire Gaudiani of the Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University. "Many have seen first-hand where the needs are and what a difference individual citizens can make."
Some youths have gained that awareness from volunteer activities. Many have seen celebrities take up worthy causes. Others have traveled with their families and encountered the challenges many children face in other countries.
Katie Simon, a teenager from Newton, Mass., says a lengthy family trip in the developing world when she was in second grade first opened her eyes. Then, when she heard two years ago about the child sex trade in some of those places, she knew she needed to do something.
"I learned about a rehabilitation center for children in the Philippines and talked with friends about raising $5,000 in a yard sale," says the 16-year-old. "People thought that was impossible, but we raised $6,500!"
Thrilled with their success, Katie founded an organization, Minga (mingagroup.org), to educate others about the scourge of child sex trafficking and to raise funds to fight it. (Minga is a word in Quechua, a native language of South America, which means "the coming together of a community to work for a common good.")
Katie spends between 20 and 30 hours a week in the work, and says it's well worth it: "I've discovered my own power to change the world, and have connected to some awesome people. I've seen the good side of everybody – it's amazing."
Last month, Katie won a Global Action Award given to young leaders by the international relief group Mercy Corps.
Technology, too, has helped breed this new generation of givers and social entrepreneurs. The Web facilitates global communication and network-building as well as ease in donating.
Talia Leman, an Iowa teen, got her feet wet in philanthropy after hurricane Katrina. At age 10, she started a project called TLC – trick or treat for the levee catastrophe. She wrote a news release on lined paper and sent it to TV stations, urging kids to ask for loose change on Halloween as well as candy. With the help of an adult friend who set up a website, she connected with children in 4,000 school districts across the United States. They raised $10 million, what ABC News said was equal to the giving power of the top five US corporations.
That experience led Talia to create RandomKid, which supports children in the US and elsewhere in carrying out their own project ideas. "When I speak at schools, kids often come up and say, 'I have this great idea. How can I make it happen?' " says Talia, the nonprofit's CEO. RandomKid has worked with children in 50 states and 20 countries.
Last week, they held an Internet video conference involving schools in five states with the South African entrepreneur who developed the "playpump" system to provide safe water to rural communities. The students had raised enough funds for their second pump. Hearing that, "entrepreneur Trevor Field said he knew of a community in Malawi that desperately needed one, and he'd get moving on it right away," says Anne Ginther, RandomKid's president.
On Nov. 13, Talia was recognized for her efforts with an award from World of Children (WOC), which sponsors what some call the Nobel prize for children.
"Talia is being recognized as a changemaker because she has put together a new cohort of philanthropists – some 600 kids across the US and the world," says Harry Leibowitz, WOC founder. "What she's doing has sustainability."
Mr. Leibowitz has been giving out awards for eight years and has witnessed the growth in child activists.
"We get nominations from around the world for children who are doing extraordinary work. It's amazing, but there are thousands," he says. "It takes a child that not only has the vision and the fortitude, but something else – either a supportive family or an epiphany."
Young people are also active in bringing change to their own communities. Thanks to many community foundations across the country, youths are gaining knowledge and leadership skills in philanthropy by serving on youth advisory committees.
Rose Community Foundation (RCF) in Denver took an additional step eight years ago by creating Rose Youth Foundation, to give Jewish high school students the responsibility for becoming positive change agents in the metro area.
"We give them $50,000 each year and expose them to strategic philanthropy and learning about Jewish values of giving," says Lisa Farber Miller, RCF's program coordinator.
Twenty-three teenagers are selected from a seven-county area, elect their officers, spend six months in needs assessment, and decide on a grantmaking approach and on which projects to fund. Stephen Lurie, a senior at Cherry Creek High School, has been involved now for three years. "You learn a lot about the philanthropy process and about cooperation. We use the consensus [decisionmaking] model, and it's made me a stronger leader and a more patient person," he says.
Stephen's favorite funding priority last year was a program that enables refugees from torture who've come to this country to learn English. "People can only connect to society and get jobs when they have the language," he explains. "By the time we've finished this year, I'll have helped donate $150,000 to programs in metro Denver. To see the impact is amazing."
Young people are learning the value of giving at earlier ages. In a 2007 national study of 2,000 kids from ages 6 to 14, Just Kids Inc. found that 30 percent of the children surveyed were involved in volunteer activities on a monthly basis.
While an overproliferation of nonprofits poses some problems in the US (reaching 2 million by the end of 2008), Dr. Gaudiani says, entrepreneurial young people are making valuable contributions to the greater good.
"I think we have another 'greatest generation' in hatchery," she says.