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Charity Doesn't Always Begin at Home: Student Philanthropy Experience Path to Future Giving

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A recent report released by the Heller School's Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy, at Brandeis University, points to new insights into building a pipeline to create philanthropists. Drawing from over 1,600 respondents enrolled in college classes where the study of philanthropy is infused into the course material, the report's strong finding is: engaging students in philanthropy through coursework increases the likelihood of future involvement in the sector.

In fact, debunking the common assumption that charity is learned at home, about half of survey respondents reported never discussing their parents' volunteer or philanthropic work with them. This is an indicator that family may not be the only place where the philanthropic impulse begins, despite that long-held assumption.

"The Sillerman Center research found that after completing Pay it Forward courses in Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky colleges, students said they were more likely to donate money to nonprofits, volunteer in the community and believe they can make a difference," said Richard Kinsley, Executive Director of Ohio Campus Compact, which sponsored the program. Students enrolled in Pay it Forward courses completed at least 15 hours of course-related volunteer service and then collectively decided on how to award $2,500 to charitable organizations.

"Beyond fostering a new generation of philanthropists, the program is meaningful for its impact on student understanding of nonprofit needs and how to foster deeper, collaborative connections with local communities," Kinsley added.  

Even more importantly, "the students in classes awarding grants to community agencies see themselves as reciprocal partners with others in local communities, not as those who 'have' providing for those who 'have not.'", Kinsley says This type of collaborative approach to giving avoids some of the noblesse oblige pitfalls that many donor/recipient relationships, despite the best intentions, have difficulty avoiding.

And even before youth attend college, opportunities to practice philanthropy are in evidence in many parts of the U.S. The Michigan Council on Foundations began its efforts two decades ago. Over 13,500 Michigan youth have participated in what are lovingly called YACs, standing for youth advisory councils, or similar names that fit that acronym.

According to Council website, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation sponsored a youth challenge for Michigan community foundations 20 years ago to create and expand endowment funds to be used for youth programming decided on by youth advisory committees. Over 1,500 young people currently serve on 86 youth grant-making committees, and collectively give $1.5 million in grants per year.

The Council sponsored a 2013 report documenting the impact of the Kellogg Foundation's youth challenge, both on the community foundations as well as on Michigan communities and the young people themselves. The report, completed by the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University, points to the impact of giving youth an important voice in community decisions. This experience in civic engagement nurtures critical skills for living in a democracy.

Community foundations in other parts of the U.S. see the value in engaging high school youth. The Foundation for MetroWest, based in Natick, Massachusetts, runs a Youth in Philanthropy program for students in grades six through twelve. Judy Salerno, the executive director, says, "The Foundation's Youth in Philanthropy program enables young people to connect to issues in their community, build their leadership skills, and develop creative and analytical thinking that inspires a deep level of community involvement. We have seen high school students change their outlook on life and their future plans over a period of just several months. Sharing an experience of giving back with the next generation allows students to take a step back from everyday life and realize that they can make an impact in ways they may never have realized."

And for youth who are fortunate enough to be born into families where governing foundations will be their legacy, Youth Philanthropy Connect, a national program of the Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation based in California, works with kids ages eight to twenty-one, connecting them across family foundations and with each other in an annual conference held in Disneyland.

Spurred on by the kids themselves, who insist on broadening smaller scale and local efforts to include a greater number of youth involved in family foundations, Youth Philanthropy Connect is not only building a pipeline of knowledgeable future donors, but also strengthening civic life and participation along the way. Annie Hernandez, the director of Youth Philanthropy Connect, says, "From the experience the kids are having meeting each other and exchanging ideas, they learn about service, their community and themselves as leaders."

Hernandez says that building a significant pipeline begins when someone is young. "If youth are engaging with a diverse group in decision-making, they are exposed to differences in thought, experience and opinion. This sensitivity to others and openness can pay huge dividends for our society in the future and has a ripple effect."

And even beyond the families with foundations, Hernandez says that talking with any young person about using his or her allowance or earned money to spend, save and share, crosses all sectors and is an important component of financial literacy for every young person to adopt.

Megan Briggs Reilly, who works as a Philanthropic Advisor at Hemenway & Barnes, LLP, a venerable law firm in Boston, has experience with multiple generations of philanthropists.

Reilly says the drive to give is all about finding the spark, no matter what the age. She observes that for the last twenty years, exposure to community service and giving back are more prevalent, because schools have implemented community service requirements. She says, "The in-school exposure supports a current trend in philanthropy to offer classes, workshops and philanthropy contests."

Reilly has been a judge for the last several years in the national Generous U contest to increase college student philanthropy, where students can win the Sillerman Center's $10,000 prize. She says, "I have been really impressed with the innovation and enthusiasm that students bring to their campuses. That kind of energy is contagious and I hope that high schools and colleges continue to promote the value of giving back, which, like community service, can become a common practice and inspire giving at all levels."

It's hard to be agnostic about involving young people in philanthropy when evidence points to increasing these opportunities wherever communities and foundations can.