The stereotype of the “me me me” generation couldn’t be more wrong.
Youth are driving grant dollars to organizations that are changing communities through more than 480 programs around the world. Most of these young people are not independently wealthy, and most didn’t say “philanthropist” when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Some adults would discount youth grantmaking as a nice story, but still too small to “actually matter.” But collectively, youth have driven well over $4.9 million in grantmaking, with sample grants including:
- A $3,000 grant from youth in the Georgia-based Watson-Brown Foundation’s program to Augusta Canal National Heritage Area Inc. to support digitizing oral histories of mill workers
- A CAD$5,000 grant from the Kwantlen Park Secondary School Youth and Philanthropy Initiative to the Developmental Disabilities Association to expand its daily lunch service program
- A $1,350 grant from the YAPPERS youth philanthropy program at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque to the Hills and Dales Child Development Center to support a music therapy program
I find it hard to question that these grants are in fact making a difference, and that the youth involved are developing a life-long active civic mentality by participating in the grantmaking process. Beyond creating change in their communities and expanding their own knowledge, these youth also have a lot to teach the broader philanthropy sector about practice. Especially in a field with no required certification or curriculum, grantmakers should look to learn wherever and from whomever they can. In my years of following and researching youth grantmaking, here are some of the best lessons I’ve learned from the youth themselves:
1. Cut through the red tape of boardroom politics.
At my first Youth Philanthropy Connect national conference several years ago, I participated in a conference-ending giving circle. By participated, I mean that I silently observed along with all of the other adults, while youth did all of the talking and all of the decision making about how $3,500 should be distributed to 1-5 nonprofit organizations that we had collectively met the prior day. What most surprised and impressed me about listening to the deliberations was the amount of matter-of-fact dissonance. Some of these youth were strangers to one another, and yet they were all comfortable voicing their opinions and exploring opinions that they didn’t understand. They talked about measures of impact, fairness (and lack thereof), ethics, and populations served. They talked about the merits and challenges of partial funding, and also about how they might communicate lingering questions and feedback to applicants. Everyone remained civil and maintained their opinions with open-mindedness throughout. When I asked one participant about sharing candidly, he said, “Well that’s what I’m here to do. Why would I not say something? They learn from me and I learn from them.” Oh, that simple! Could it be?
2. Developing strong relationships with grantees promotes honesty and understanding.
A part of many youth grantmaking programs is the goal to collectively do volunteer work or otherwise spend time with grantee organizations both before and after the application process. Across the board, I have heard youth grantmakers who do this tell insightful and interesting stories about what their partner organizations are doing. It’s never in perfectly-formed language that one might see on an application, but rather a personal, emotional, experience-based understanding of what an organization is doing in the community. Social Venture Partners Youth (SVPY), for example, actually requires participants to select and get to know a grantee organization early so that they can fundraise the grant money themselves. The youth grantmakers essentially become partners in the organization’s work by garnering additional community support through deep, genuine understanding of the work being done and the needs that the work is meeting. Additionally, the organization can share stories and information more readily, because the funding decision is already made.
3. You don’t need to hire consultants to conduct community needs assessments.
Youth often roll up their own sleeves to assess needs in their communities before defining their grantmaking focus. For example, the Teen Grantmaking Initiative at the Center for Arab-American Philanthropy surveys students at the schools that they themselves attend to understand what needs they perceive in the community. The results of one recent assessment showed that “longer recess/study halls” wasn’t an identified need, but drug abuse and domestic violence were. There’s a lot to be learned just by asking peers, and it doesn’t cost any money to do so.
4. Participatory grantmaking opens access to new communities.
Inviting youth to be partners in grantmaking – especially grantmaking that is supposed to impact youth – can shed new perspective and understanding on needs and organizations. For example, one foundation in North Carolina was skeptical about an anti-bullying grant request it received, but its youth board was able to show the value of funding this issue. When members of the community that a funder is trying to work with are substantively at the table and participating in the grantmaking process, there is increased collective intelligence and perspective that can inform decision-making.
5. It’s ok to know what you don’t know and ask for help.
At a youth giving conference in Houston last year, disabled persons surfaced as a population that one organization works with. In the room, there were varying levels of understanding around disability. The groups with the most dynamic conversations were those that explored definitional understandings of disability by asking peers and adults in the room. Even among adults, there is variance in how we interpret words and concepts, and being willing to learn and ask others for help can lead to more informed strategy and decisions.
6. Saying “no” can and should add value.
Participants in youth giving programs learn how fun it is to make the call to say “Yes, your funding request was approved,” but also how difficult it can feel to not be able to offer funding to everyone. Empathy seems to drive many youth giving programs to let those that didn’t receive funding know that they didn’t – but also why they didn’t, as well. Youth Funding Youth Ideas, for example, works with non-funded applicants to help them improve their proposal for the next grant cycle through both personal assistance and customized workshops. It’s a way to still help the organization and its leaders grow beyond grant dollars. While every organization might not have the capacity to provide one-on-one assistance, investing in people through feedback and support where possible can make a big difference.
7. We should play and connect as humans.
Getting to know fellow board members and having fun together promotes candor and smarter grantmaking. In Michigan, youth from YACs (youth advisory committees) across the state get together for an annual conference. The planning committee carefully organizes social activities, social media engagement, giveaways, and “open spaces” at the conference where participants can speak on any topic related to the conference theme. Danielle, one of last year’s youth leaders, shared, “We’ve found that activities like this form extremely strong friendships and bonds between participants from all over the state and allow organic conversations about their specific programs to flow.”
As grants managers, some of these lessons might seem easier to infuse in your foundation than others. (Some are.) But remember: just like youth philanthropists, you bring incredible insight and often untapped power to your role. You can lead by suggesting new ideas and finding data (like the examples shared here) to back them up. If nothing else, I hope we learn from how willing youth are to approach these new skills with excitement and courage. I challenge us all to re-engage our zest for learning and testing new approaches by asking: How can I integrate the youth mentality into my work?