News and analysis
July 01, 2016

Project Aims to Track Role of Children in Philanthropy

The Guadalupe and Lilia Martinez Foundation

Ana Gonzalez, Nadia Gonzalez, Brendan Adams, Rob Gonzalez, PILLAR co-founders Arturo Diaz and Manuel Sanchez, and Color Run participants at the PILLAR Color Run. PILLAR is a Laredo-based bullying and suicide prevention organization working with both youth and adults.

A new website aims to highlight the grant-making prowess of a surprising set of philanthropists: children and teenagers.

YouthGiving.org, a project of the Foundation Center, compiles data on young people who directly oversee the distribution of money to nonprofits. So far the project has documented more than $14.7 million in grant funding since 2001 — and that is likely a low estimate, says Jen Bokoff, director of knowledge services for Foundation Center.

The site defines youths as people ages 8 to 30, but most of the data comes from people 8- to 21-year-olds, according to the center.

Only a small fraction of these young people are privileged children giving away family money. Rather, they are mostly youths who participate in institutional grant-making programs that give money for a variety of causes, often related to serving their peers.

"My observation of young people deliberating grants is that adults have a lot to learn from them," Ms. Bokoff says. "They’re doing site visits so much smarter, listening to each other in the boardroom, and talking about how a budget is structured."

The new site, which has case studies, a program directory, and an interactive funding map, is designed to underscore the substantive nature of youth-driven grant making and inspire both kids and adults to learn more about the burgeoning movement.

Michigan Roots

The concept of youth grant making got a boost more than two decades ago when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation gave Michigan community foundations money for endowed funds to be distributed by youth advisory committees.

Today the state has more than 80 such committees, each made up of about 20 students ages 13 to 17. The committees assess the needs of young people in their communities and give grants to local nonprofits to address those needs.

Each year the committees give away about $2.5 million for programs dealing with issues like mental health, relationships between youths and police officers, and poor conditions in local juvenile detention centers. Youth advisory committee members succeeded in their effort to pass a new state law allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to serve and vote on nonprofit boards.

The program has had many benefits beyond the work done with the grant money, says Rob Collier, president of the Council of Michigan Foundations: It’s brought together kids from diverse backgrounds to discuss community problems and helped develop future nonprofit and foundation leaders.

"Alumni are running nonprofits and doing policy work," Mr. Collier says. "We are generating a pipeline of new leadership, which is really exciting."

The model has been picked up by institutions in other states and 18 countries, and its curriculum, Learning to Give, is used in classrooms across the country.

The concept has also taken root at family foundations. A recent Foundation Source survey found that 37.2 percent of respondents work for family foundations that try to engage the next generation by providing discretionary grants or grant certificates, which are similar to charitable gift cards. Those certificates go to children as young as 6, who decide which nonprofits to give to, says Page Snow, chief marketing and philanthropic officer for Foundation Source.

"In my experience, the earlier you bring in young people, say ages 6 to 12, the more likely you’re going to cultivate that commitment," she says. "You’re enculturating a philanthropic mind-set."

Complex Problems

There are drawbacks to entrusting grant-making duties to children and teens. Serving on a grant committee may be only one of many extracurricular activities on a young person’s agenda, Ms. Bokoff says. And community problems often require a level of maturity that not all kids possess.

"There’s a need to have a strong adult presence to guide but not lead some of these tricky conversations," she says.

But she believes asking children to grant money on behalf of their peers is an excellent model of "participatory grant making."

"They’re most in touch with the needs and solutions that affect other young people," she says.

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig.