April 20, 2010. People around the world were glued to their TV’s as hundreds of millions of gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. For Olivia Bouler, then age 11 and an aspiring ornithologist and artist, her first thoughts went to the countless birds that would be impacted. Immediately, Bouler set out to do something about it. In a letter to the National Audubon society she introduced herself as “11 years old and willing to help…” and proposed a fundraising idea where she would create paintings and drawings to distribute to people who donated to wildlife recovery efforts in the wake of the tragedy. A little more than a year later, her efforts helped to raise $200,000, which was used to establish a volunteer center for bird cleaning in Moss Point, Miss.
For Bouler, now 14, the importance of young people giving in a community cannot be overstated.
“I think that people our age are still learning and growing. We haven’t been told that everything is impossible yet, because we haven’t had the level of responsibility and reality that adults have to face every day,” she stated.
Bouler’s stand-out effort begs an important question: How can adults support children — including young people with limited resources — to be philanthropic?
Growing the next generation
A recently released study from Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, “Women Give 2013, New Research on Charitable Giving by Girls and Boys,” may provide some answers. Using empirically based evidence, the study examined how parents and caregivers can guide children toward being charitable.
Among the report’s key findings include the fact that nearly nine out of 10 children between the ages of 8 and 19 give to charity, and that girls and boys are equally likely to give. Perhaps even more significantly, the study found that talking to children about charity has a greater impact on children’s giving than role modeling alone.
Erin Boorn, senior philanthropic advisor at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, concurs that conversation is a vital part of engaging children in giving.
“It’s about growing that next generation into an involved and compassionate society,” she said. “A lot of times it’s about bringing families together and providing a sounding board to having conversations.”
The Community Foundation’s Planet Philanthropy engages children of donors in activities and events designed to cultivate an appreciation of giving.
“We’ll see sometimes that the kids who don’t seem like they’re paying attention will go home and tell their parents what they learned, and that sparks a conversation between them about something that wouldn’t normally come up,” Boorn said.
Planet Philanthropy is one of many similar initiatives nationwide. Boorn said many Community Foundations run versions of Planet Philanthropy that engage with children of donors. According to a report by Center for Giving, since the mid-1980s, “more than 250 youth philanthropy programs have been identified in the United States and several other countries (e.g., Canada, New Zealand, Poland), and new programs are on the drawing board in countless communities.”
Since most charitable giving is tracked by tax returns, it is difficult to measure how much money youth under the age of 18 have given to charity. According to the 2013 Millenial Impact Report, put out by the creative services agency Achieve, 83 percent of respondents ages 20 to 35 made a financial gift to an institution in 2012.
An important part of their work, Boorn noted, is “providing that discussion place for families to talk about what’s important to kids, important to parents, and partly about creating a community that’s engaged and involved in giving.”
Olivia Bouler’s mother, Nadine, said she raised her two children to be givers “obviously by doing… but mostly by saying, “well what could you do about it?” I’m a teacher. … So when [the gulf spill] happened I said, ‘well what could you do about it?’… We just kind of troubleshot … I let her play it through as problem solving.”
It makes it easier that children are naturally predisposed to giving. According to the Women Give 2013 report, “Recent empirical research … suggests that from a very young age, children have a biological predisposition to be empathetic, helpful, and generous.”
Teaching 21st century skills
Eight years ago, philanthropist Lynn Schusterman decided she wanted to start a program in Tulsa, Okla., where teens would become philanthropists thorough engagement and participation in civic life.
That vision evolved into the Youth Philanthropy Initiative (YPI), which melds giving with social entrepreneurship and other 21st century skills into a three-year program for a select group of Tulsa high school students.
While the program’s model is set up to serve only approximately 75 teens annually, there is much to be learned from how YPI engages teens in giving for larger after-school programs.
Each group of students begins by identifying an issue in the community that teens are wrestling with that they don’t think is being adequately addressed. By the end of the three years, the goal is to have created a project or program that any other community could adopt. Each group has $30,000 to see their project to fruition.
Money aside, however, much of the work YPI does with the kids involves teaching them to hone their skills, their leadership abilities and the issues they are passionate about.
YPI’s curriculum emphasizes 21st century skills such as PR, social media and website building to promote the projects.
According to Adam Seaman, who leads YPI and works directly with the young participants, “We don’t treat them like students, we treat them like experts. They’re experts in teen culture.”
For example, Seaman notes, “Volunteering could be social media for non-profits that don’t know anything about it.”
Or, an after-school program could schedule a volunteer flash mob where teens meet at a location and do community service.
“[The kids] live in such a different world. They’re the ones who can make a difference. That’s why we’re preparing them now.”
Can giving can be taught without having any money to give away?
The report does find that talking to children about charity is equally effective regardless of the parent’s income level, as well the child’s gender, race and age.
For after-school programs, this information provides an important gateway into how their time spent with children can foster philanthropic tendencies.
At the nonprofit Youth Community Service in Palo Alto, Calif., middle and high school students of all income levels are learning the important takeaways of giving. Through community service work and philanthropy classes taught at several high schools, Youth Community Service helps young people channel their caring energy.
Although the philanthropy class program is funded to provide the students with a pool of money to give away, there is much to be gleaned from the process leading up to writing a check. The classes, which have approximately 12 teens each, identify which issues are important them, pick several organizations working in those fields, conduct site visits to the organization’s facilities and ultimately choose to fund one or more group with a grant.
Leif Erickson, executive director of Youth Community Service, said the most important components of philanthropy are about more than giving financially.
“Our approach is not just about giving cash but giving of yourself and how you grow, and the return you get on that and what you learn from the people you’re sharing things with. You could be giving time or resources as well as money.”
Teaching kids about giving is less about money, Erickson said, and more “about students coming together in a service stage and working together side by side and discovering their common values, and the common sense of the values of sharing whatever resources [they] have.”
Many of the youth in Erickson’s program are from low-income families, and some have received some form of welfare themselves. Being on the giving side of things empowers them in many ways.
“They see themselves with different eyes, which is an important part of the process. And to feel the respect … from both points of view,” he said.
Service as treasure
Seaman posits that there are three things that everyone has to give away: time, treasure and talent.
At the Boys & Girls Club of America, service is the treasure of choice.
Through the Club’s Torch and Keystone programs, youth are invited to engage with their peers to devise and carry out service projects in their communities — all with little to no budget.
According to Jennifer Berger, vice president of program services for the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco, the programs are about, “youth actively engaging in [their] own community, looking at how much impact they can have as a young person and seeing issues in the community and asking themselves what they can do to give back.”
Torch club, for middle school students, and Keystone club, for high schoolers, both put emphasis on conversation between group advisers and young people to foster an understanding of and passion for giving.
Berger provided a recent example:
“A few years ago the club gave away sandwiches to homeless folks in the Tenderloin [neighborhood in San Francisco]. While that wasn’t going to change anything, it did spark conversation about the systematic reason folks are homeless.”
In dialogues, students who are residents of the neighborhood, were tasked with thinking about what it would take to decrease or eliminate homelessness.
“For these youth this is their reality … and that’s where the real work happens — asking, OK, so what does this impact look like on wider scale, institutionally and how does that connect to what you are thinking about in your career path?” said Berger.
Erickson agreed with Berger stating, “In the after-school setting, if we can make learning come alive through engaging them in areas they care about, we can engage them back into school and to see it as more relevant to their lives.”
Thus, critical to the success of OST programs helping kids become life-long givers, Erickson feels, is to tie it to what the kids are learning in school. For example, weaving in math skills for a canned food drive, or practicing writing skills or video making skills.
“Keep weaving learning into it. So often these days kids don’t find school relevant to what they care about,” said Erickson.
Erickson states, “We know from youth development research that service is a gateway. Meaningful service can be a transforming experience for young people. [It provides] a sense of capacity, connectedness, and an ability to make change and the extra power that comes from doing it as a community or as a team.”
Summing up the importance of youth giving grandly and simply, Olivia Bouler asserted, “[We’re] going to be taking on the world, [we’re] going to be the next generation … and we are going to make the world a better place as opposed to a worse place.”
Katy McCarthy is a staff writer.