When Kids Hold the Purse Strings

American teens are notorious big spenders, plunking down $170 billion in 2002 for electronic gadgets, movie and concert tickets, food, clothes and other pleasures, according to Teenage Research Unlimited. But increasingly, teens are reaching into their pockets – and those of others – to help other youth.

Almost unheard of 15 years ago, youth grant-making programs now run in almost every state. The Michigan Council on Foundations estimates there are more than 300 such programs across the country.

Organization, membership selection and fund-raising activities among the program vary greatly: Some are faith-based, such as the Community Youth Foundation in San Diego, while others are gender-based, such as Girl’s Best Friend in Chicago. Some award grants of $100, while others award grants of $3,000 or more.

Nearly all are community-based and focus on meeting the needs of local youth, such as the Quilombo Youth Grant Board in West Oakland, Calif., and the Youth Initiative of the Taos Community Foundation in New Mexico.

Michigan stands out as a trend-setter. In 1988, the Michigan Council on Foundations began working with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to establish a youth program. In 1991, Kellogg pledged to donate $1 to build a youth fund for every $2 raised locally, with the money placed in a permanent endowment by a community foundation. Since then, Kellogg has provided more than $27 million in matching grants and technical assistance.

The Mott Foundation contributed $600,000 from 1988 to 1991 to help community foundations participate in the program.

Under the Michigan model, community foundations establish Youth Advisory Councils (YACs): boards of about 20 members, ages 12 to 21. The YACs have their own endowments from which to make grants. Each year, about 1,500 Michigan youth serve on 86 YACs; more than 8,000 have served since 1991.

The Michigan YACs oversee an estimated $48 million in endowed funds, and have raised more than $100 million locally.

The Michigan model has been replicated by other states and countries, with similar programs in Canada, Ireland and Australia, said Kari Pardoe, Michigan Foundation program associate. “It’s really taken off in the past five or six years,” she said.

Not all youth grant-making programs are based on the Michigan YAC model, although many are part of larger community foundations. Others are based in schools or religious foundations. Some have a permanent endowment, others raise their own funds annually, and some require the kids to contribute some money themselves.

The payoff in youth grant making is often more than economic. In Michigan, YAC representatives helped to win passage of a state law that dropped the participation age on foundation boards from 18 to 16.

Doling out cash to worthy causes is just part of the youth grant-making experience, said Jerry Finn, coordinator of the Youth Philanthropy Initiative of Indiana.

“Grant-giving is a good thing, but we think there’s a lot more they need to do,” Finn said. “They need to give time, talent and treasure.”

The youths often volunteer for some of the organizations they’ve visited, or encourage more participation and giving from friends and family. They learn about community needs, nonprofit structure, teamwork and finances.

The boards are also a constructive outlet for teens who want to get more involved in the communities. “Teenagers are frustrated in many ways. There is a large number of teenagers that really want to help people, to do good things,” said Cecilia Patterson, program director and former youth coordinator for the Arkansas Community Foundation. “This is just a vehicle for them to act on their philanthropic urges.”

Grant-making fits in a broader philosophy of youth philanthropy, which also includes personal giving, volunteering and fund-raising. Best Practices in Youth Philanthropy, published by the Coalition of Community Foundations for Youth, says youth philanthropy “integrates philanthropic tradition and values with the principles of youth development … and community development. What distinguishes youth philanthropy from other forms of charitable activity is that young people participate at a decision-making level – identifying community priorities, making grant decisions.”

Following are four examples of youth-led grant-making organizations.


Community Youth Foundation
Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego
4950 Murphy Canyon Road
San Diego, CA 92123
(858) 279-2740

The tenet of giving in Judaism is based on “tzedakah,” a Hebrew word roughly equivalent to “charity.” Unlike general charity that suggests benevolence and generosity, tzedakah – pronounced “se-da-kah” – is based on justice and righteousness.

“Jews are obligated. That’s really how we base our education program,” said Gail Littman, director of community programs for the Jewish Community Foundation in San Diego. The foundation helps to develop philanthropy among young people through its Community Youth Foundation, established seven years ago.

It was not, however, in the plans when the umbrella foundation was established in 1968, Littman said. Then one of the foundation’s donors suggested the idea of youth philanthropy. “Giving tzedakah is a learned behavior and something we need to teach young people,” she said.

Participants were initially selected from the roughly 300 family donors to the Jewish Community Foundation, but now include youths from Jewish day schools and local synagogues. Each youth contributes $36, which is matched by the foundation and pooled with other youth contributions.

A five-member steering committee of teens oversees the activities of the groups. There are two: one with about 10 members, the other with about 25.

The foundation gives the youths a list of regional organizations seeking grants, and schedules site visits (about 15 a year for each group).

After the visits, each youth tzedakah group meets to decide how its grant pool should be spent. Grants are awarded to religious and secular programs, mostly in San Diego. The visits are as educational for the participants as is the more formal education about tzedakah the foundation provides, Littman said. Some participants are from wealthy families and have not seen first-hand the effects of poverty on families, or other social ills that more often plague the poor than the affluent.

“They are pretty astonished” at what they see, Littman said. One of her groups recently visited the Monarch School in San Diego, a shelter for homeless teens trying to finish high school. “Of course, they wanted to give all their money to that group,” she said.

Youth also learn that although many groups are worthy of receiving their limited funds, difficult choices have to be made.

This year the organization made 10 grants – ranging from $100 to $1,500 – including awards to the Monarch School, the Make a Wish Foundation, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Family Service Healing Center.

“Our [youth participant] evaluations every year are really good,” Littman said. “They want to do it again.”

Kids as Fund-Raisers

Pine Crest Community Foundation
Pine Crest School
1501 NE 62nd St.
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33334
(954) 492-4100

Most students at the Pine Crest School in Ft. Lauderdale are from wealthy families; tuition starts at $12,500 a year for preschool and kindergarten, and increases to $15,350 for grades nine through 12. Some of the older kids have cars that cost well over $40,000.

Students participating in the Pine Crest Community Foundation know that affluence is not universal. The foundation has doled out more than $100,000 in grants to community organizations over the past eight years, with nearly all the money raised by the students.

The foundation, which is similar to a student club in its structure, was started in 1994 with a challenge grant from the Plan for Social Excellence in Tampa, Fla., run by Mario J. Pena, a former Pine Crest School principal. Pena offered the school a $12,000 matching grant – $4,000 annually for three years – to start the philanthropic program.

Pena made his offer after noting that the school – consistently ranked among the top 10 private schools in the nation – did not cover “charity, philanthropy or stewardship,” said Paul Aldridge, faculty adviser and moderator for the student foundation.

“These kids are so blessed with material things, they have small idea of charity,” Aldridge said.

That changed after the Plan for Social Excellence grants came in.

The foundation’s charter is straightforward, Aldridge said. None of the money raised by the foundation can be spent on school-related programs, and all of it must be spent on children and youth projects.

In addition, the students are responsible for everything from raising the funds to finding the grant applicants and spending the funds each year.

“If it happens, it’s because they thought it up, they put it together,” Aldridge said. “I envision my role as the one who makes things happen once the kids decide what to do. I help get it through the process.”

The foundation does not have an endowment. “What comes in goes out. The last meeting of the year we give away all the money,” Aldridge said.

The foundation is set up to be as uncomplicated as possible, he said. One youth, known as the program coordinator, is in charge. Students who want to participate can lead a specific project or just help on projects.

There are no other membership requirements. “Anyone who walks into the meeting, they can be a member,” Aldridge said.

Grants are awarded based on a simple majority of students present at the business meeting, even if only one student is there (that has never happened, Aldridge said), and even if the students have never attended another meeting.

The foundation meets when necessary. “When we have a full agenda, the program coordinator calls a meeting,” Aldridge said. A core group of about 40 kids, in grades six through 12, takes part in foundation activities each year.

With the original $12,000 challenge grant from the Plan for Social Excellence long gone, the foundation must raise all of its own funds. It relies on four primary projects a year, Aldridge said: selling student picture packages, graduation photos and Valentine’s Day roses, and holding an annual walkathon.

The 2002 fall walkathon raised $3,500 in one hour, he said. The 2003 rose sale netted another $2,800, and the foundation earned about $6,000 from selling graduation pictures this year. The foundation has a “captive audience” of 1,600 students on 49 acres at the school’s Ft. Lauderdale campus.

The youth award grants after making site visits, which is where they learn the best lessons, Aldridge said. “They see the kinds of lives some kids live, about which they had no idea,” he said.

On a visit to the Covenant House in Ft. Lauderdale – which provides services to youth up to age 21, including emergency housing – the kids watched agape as a mother dropped off a 16-year-old girl with two suitcases and drove away.

In the most recent school year, the foundation made $17,500 in grants, ranging from $1,000 to $2,000.

The youths selected 13 organizations for grants this year, including the Jack and Jill Nursery (which provides free childcare to working mothers), the Broward (County) Children’s Center, the Children’s Home Society of Florida, Covenant House and Kids in Distress.

The youth also collect clothes for shelters and work at the Jack and Jill center. The foundation has invested more than $3,000 in the children’s cancer unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital, helping to equip a playroom.

One Big Donor

Teens Giving 10
The Community Foundation
Serving Boulder County
1123 Spruce St.
Boulder, CO 80302
(303) 442-0436

Teens selected to participate in the Teens Giving 10 program don’t have to raise any of the grant money they disburse to youth-serving organizations. But their task – deciding how to divide limited resources among scores of worthy organizations – can seem more difficult than grant development.

“Of all the programs we could potentially give money to, there wasn’t a single one that wouldn’t do great things with their share of $10,000,” said Kate Kingsbery, 17, a senior at Monarch High School in Louisville, Colo. “I was amazed at how hard it became to ‘cut’ nonprofits out of the final decision. How do people do this all of the time?”

Kingsbery has been in Teens Giving 10 for two years and plans to participate again this fall. The Community Foundation established the program in 1999 at the request of a donor who gave $10,000 for a youth grant-making effort.

The donor has followed with a $10,000 donation annually, and foundation officials said the program is expected to continue for at least several more years. None of the money is set aside for administrative costs or placed in an endowment.

Each year, the foundation selects 12 youths from area high schools to participate on the youth board. The original board was composed almost solely of teens from donor families. The foundation plans to recruit more youth from families with lower incomes.
As in similar foundations, the youths visit programs that have applied for grants and interview staff and participants. The foundation serves as a technical adviser; it does not have veto authority over grant decisions.

And like traditional foundations, the youth program requires grant recipients to sign a grant contract and submit a report at the end of the grant cycle detailing how the funds were spent.

Last year the foundation received 200 grant applications. Foundation staff helped narrow the number of applicants down to 10 for site visits (based on geographic and program guidelines). The youth awarded four grants: $4,000 to the Blue Sky Bridge program, which serves victims of child abuse and their families; $3,000 to the Inn Between, which provides transitional housing for teens, families and people with disabilities; $2,000 to the I Have a Dream Foundation of Boulder, which provides scholarships, mentoring and other services to low-income youth; and $1,000 to Rocky Mountain Riding, which provides horseback-riding activities for disabled youth.

Participants learn about philanthropy in general, but they also see a part of the community they never knew existed.

“They didn’t realize this sort of thing [like homeless teens] went on right here in Boulder,” said Morgan Rogers, program director for the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County.

For youths who are already aware of the social needs in the area, working on the board helps them fulfill a sometimes frustrated desire to help address those needs. “One of the problems I had run into was finding out about different organizations and how to get involved,” Kingsbery said.

And they learn they can make a difference, even using someone else’s money. “Philanthropy is no longer something only rich middle-aged people can do,” Kingsbery said.

The Rural Challenge

Youth Advisory Committee
Arkansas Community Foundation
700 S. Rock St.
Little Rock, AR 72202
(501) 372-2723

More than a decade after the Council of Michigan Foundations launched its Youth Advisory Committee model, some states still struggle to ensure that every part of their state is involved in the program.

Rural states in particular face a number of hurdles to full participation, including trying to get a wide representation of youth and adequate finances. The Arkansas Community Foundation, for instance, doesn’t have enough resources to establish a YAC in every community.

The foundation started its YAC program in November 2001, and has 17 YACs in different stages of development. The goal is to establish a permanent YAC on each of the 24 regional community foundations affiliated with the state foundation. However, the state foundation has enough money to support only 20 YACs through a two-year, $450,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Local foundations interested in establishing YACs apply to the state foundation for a $2,500 start-up grant. Successful applicants receive training along with the initial grant. Community foundations can use up to $500 for start-up costs, and must award $2,000 in grants to youth-serving organizations in their area.

As in Michigan, community foundations were encouraged to establish YACs with permanent endowments through a $10,000 matching grant (per foundation) from Kellogg. In addition, the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation matches contributions for the YAC’s affiliate foundation.

Thus a $1 donation generates an additional $2 through the contributions of Kellogg and Walton: $1 into the YAC endowment plus $1 into the affiliate’s grant-making endowment, said Cecelia Patterson, program director for the state community foundation.

Despite the weak economy, YACs have been surprisingly successful at raising their $10,000 to get the matching grants, Patterson said. All funds must be raised by the YAC, not the community foundation.

“You know where the [stock] markets are. People feel poorer, and one of the first things to go is their contributions. Yet all of our YACs are raising money,” Patterson said. One YAC has established a $30,000 endowment.

YACs vary in size, although the state foundation recommends 20 youth members and one adult supervisor. The boards are supposed to mirror the affiliate’s demographics by race, sex and age, and should have a balanced representation from rural and urban areas.

But achieving diversity in membership can be difficult, especially in large, rural counties where transportation to meetings can pose problems. Some YACs have also had a difficult time recruiting youth from poor families.

All YAC decisions are pretty much final. YACs make their recommendations to their local affiliates, which pass on proposals to the state foundation for final approval. Vetoes are only for technical problems. For example, one organization selected by a YAC had already been selected to receive a grant from a local affiliate.

“They make the decisions,” Patterson said of the youths. “We do the accounting.”

Other Resources

Coalition of Community Foundations for Youth, “Best Practices in Youth Philanthropy,”

Michigan Community Foundation Youth Project, “Youth Grantmakers: More than a Decade of Outcomes and Lessons Learned from the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project,”

Youth Philanthropy Initiative of Indiana, 9100 Keystone Crossing, Suite 390, Indianapolis, IN 46240. (317) 715-6709,


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