Inside or outside of the philanthropic sector, most people would never expect youth to vote on foundation boards, conduct and publish research, distribute hundreds of thousands of grant dollars, and host conferences for philanthropic professionals. I certainly didn’t. Yet, by the end of this year, as a youth participant in philanthropy programs, I will have performed all of those tasks.
By serving as a board trustee for the Council of Michigan Foundations and as a grantmaker for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s Youth Grant Committee, I learned that uplifting youth philanthropy invests not only in the philanthropic sector’s future but in its present as well. I noticed how youth representation improved the equitable distribution of funds, outreach, communications, and program design within nonprofits. Internationally, nonprofits have recognized these benefits and are boosting youth involvement in decision-making and programs. As a result of this and other efforts, the definition of who is a philanthropist is expanding.
“[Y]outh representation improved the equitable distribution of funds, outreach, communications, and program design within nonprofits.”
However, despite the increasing opportunities within youth philanthropy, holistic information on its current status and development is severely limited. Most organizations focus their evaluations internally or locally. Data regarding youth philanthropy are fragmented and idiosyncratic, being derived from select programs. Consequently, there are gaps in our understanding of program efficacy and the role young people have in shaping philanthropy. Without a comprehensive look, how will the support for and development of youth philanthropy be informed?
By conducting research at the Johnson Center, my hope is to help solve this issue by enabling others to understand the benefits of, need for, and gaps in youth philanthropy from a global perspective. I reviewed 300 papers, studied dozens of programs, and consulted professionals from the United States, Brazil, China, and Bulgaria. Through this research, I identified four significant findings in youth philanthropy. My hope is that this blog will provide information for anyone who wants to support the present and future of youth philanthropy and, through it, the broader philanthropic sector.
In this blog, the term ‘youth philanthropy’ encompasses any program or action where youth promote the welfare of others, whether it’s through fundraising, donating, service learning, grantmaking, advocacy, participatory action research (PAR), volunteering, or trusteeship and governance. The range of youth in programs varies from preschoolers to undergraduate students.
Regardless of their geographic location, objectives, structure, and year implemented, successful youth philanthropy programs generated three main benefits: skills development in youth, informed organizational decision-making, and community relationships.
Through youth philanthropy programs, participants can obtain skills in data analysis, financial decisions, group deliberations, public presentations, interviews, and leadership. A 2013 assessment of the impact of the Michigan Community Foundation Youth Project’s (MCFYP) 86 youth advisory councils across Michigan, revealed that 74% of participants improved their communication skills, 74% learned teamwork, and 85% learned about the grantmaking process. A 2021 impact report from the Canadian service learning program, Youth and Philanthropy Initiative (YPI), found that after participating in the program, 68% of the 13,000 students who researched and advocated for nonprofits agreed or strongly agreed that they developed workplace and resume-building skills.
This increase in learning has been consistent over the past couple of decades. A 2001 report on youth philanthropy in the U.S., Changing the Face of Giving: An Assessment of Youth Philanthropy, determined that 95% of youth board members learned to make better decisions, 82% improved meeting planning and facilitation skills, and 86% were more comfortable in leadership roles.
Furthermore, foundation programs provide an opportunity for under-resourced youth to receive skills development. A 2020 case study of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation’s Youth for Community Improvement (YCI) program noted, “Most students did not have previous team building experiences like this and said they gained useful leadership skills.” Similarly, across the world in Sierra Leone, the Tar Kura Initiative reported an increase in leadership and activism among youth participants.
“[R]esearch has shown a positive relationship between adolescent involvement in philanthropic activities and a high engagement in school and life.”
In addition, analytical and presentation skills transfer to students’ academics. Boryana Kirilova and Teodora Bakardzhieva from the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum ran a Learning To Give (LTG) Bulgaria program in local schools, where students learned to identify and respond to community issues. Teachers credited an increase in students’ scores and achievements to LTG. In Shanghai, China, “Helen” YingSheng Li, CEO and founder of Dominos Philanthropy Academy (DominosEdu), China’s first youth grantmaking program, has seen similar results. According to Li, “research has shown a positive relationship between adolescent involvement in philanthropic activities and a high engagement in school and life. Our own experience with youth definitely supports such findings.”
Youth are best supported when their demographic provides input. Many organizations and programs note that youth involvement improves informed decision-making in areas such as communication, recruitment, or facilitation strategies.
Results from a 2020 Homeless and Street-Involved Youth Survey, “Meaningfully Engaging Homeless Youth in Research,” from the McCreary Centre Society noted how representative input of homeless youth improved the design and impact of the study. According to the assessment, topics overlooked by researchers were addressed by youth, such as safety during the night. The study’s reach was also expanded because the homeless youth knew where others congregated. Furthermore, in issuing the survey, representative input improved the accessibility and readability for homeless youth, leading to more accurate responses.
The 2021 report on lessons from the Tar Kura Initiative, also described the program’s organizational improvements, such as the ability to contact new youth-led programs: “Through this initiative, we reached groups that were off the radar of traditional grantmakers. For most, it was the first time they’d had access to institutional funding.”
Youth engagement programs result in the cultivation of deeper relationships with their own and surrounding communities, and participants are more likely to participate in philanthropy as adults.
The previously mentioned 2021 impact report on Canada’s Youth and Philanthropy Initiative noted, “YPI doubled the total number of students reporting ‘very strong’ and ‘strong’ connections to their community, and halved the number of students reporting ‘no connection.’”
Even youth demographics that are the most disconnected from society shared this growth in engagement. Beyond4Walls, created by the Philanthropy Alliance, is a youth participatory action research (YPAR) program concerning Glasgow’s homeless youth population, in which homeless youth designed and conducted the study. A 2015 evaluation of the program revealed that youth participants experienced “a shift towards feeling more connected within their community, having originally indicated limited connection or feeling very disconnected.”
LTG Bulgaria found that 70% of students had never volunteered prior to the program. After participating, however, students understood their surrounding communities and could name specific nonprofits.
“Involving youth in decisions benefitted adult-led organizations … by helping bring clarity to their mission, improving adult involvement and commitment to representation, and helping raise funds and reach out to the community.”
The effects extend into adulthood. The volunteer rate of MCFYP graduates (ages 18+) was a remarkable 87% in 2012, more than triple the 2011 Michigan volunteering rate of 26.5%.
Once again, the 2001 study, Changing the Face of Giving: An Assessment of Youth Philanthropy, concurred with these findings, summarizing that philanthropy empowers youth to connect to the community, form relationships, and develop new skills. Involving youth in decisions benefitted adult-led organizations, in turn, by helping bring clarity to their mission, improving adult involvement and commitment to representation, and helping raise funds and reach out to the community.
Jill Gordon, former director of Youth Philanthropy Initiative of Indiana (YPII), has seen firsthand what inhibits youth programs from continuing. YPII was created as a temporary program to jumpstart youth grantmaking programs. Thirty-five Indiana community foundations, out of 94, established youth philanthropy councils, but only 27 remain since the program transitioned to the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance. Gordon, now the manager of training at the Council on Foundations, reflected on the results of YPII: “a prominent reason some programs were sunsetted was from lack of staffing. Oftentimes, the adult advisors had other duties within the foundation, and they were quickly overwhelmed.”
Adult mentors are essential to a program’s success. While youth should be at the forefront of decision-making, mentors serve as support and guides, providing feedback, encouragement, resources, and developing relationships with youth. A 2017 analysis of the 4-H Food Smart Families program (one program of many in the 4-H organization), found that youth felt equal to their adult counterparts and noted the connection between support and independence. One youth stated, “… she [the adult partner] let me lead, but was really helpful when I needed help.” Others expressed appreciation for collaborating with adults, especially when they received individualized feedback and developed friendships, knowing there was support while youth took charge of planning and teaching.
However, adults who overly control and construct engagement opportunities can inhibit youth from growing in youth philanthropy programs. Amy Neugebauer, executive director of The Giving Square, explained that, “agency is best nurtured when adults, especially parents, take children’s lead about issues that matter and interventions that are natural to them.”
In summary, adult mentorship should be designated as a position in youth programs, and not just an added duty for an employee, and these mentors must balance allowing youth to step up into leadership roles while knowing when to step in and provide support.
Insufficient or unstable funding is the other major obstacle. Concerning YPII, Gordon explained that it ended because funders, including the primary funder, didn’t sustain donations despite seeing positive results.
However, YPII councils that received a variety of community support continued. Six youth programs in Northeast Indiana, called youth pods, survived with funding from private and community foundations, and support from local schools, such as transportation and time out of classes.
Aside from diverse sources of funding, having a dependable source is another funding strategy of successful programs. In Michigan, through MCFYP, each of the 86 YACs has an endowment that provides consistent annual funding. As a result, youth and staff aren’t pressed to find donors and do not require substantial fundraising on top of their grantmaking agendas.
It’s been shown that youth can improve organizational decision-making through committees and programs; however, they can also be instrumental as leaders and employees within organizations as well, no matter an organization’s size. Marina Pechlivanis and Elpís Ziouva, creators of the Umbigo do Mundo initiative Educação para Gentileza e Generosidade or EGG (Education for Kindness and Generosity), oversee 18 different philanthropy programs. As the first philanthropic education institute in Brazil, one element of its mission is building a philanthropic culture, beginning with youth. One of the four staff members is Isabella, 16, who manages marketing and communications. Her duties include running social media accounts, outreaching to other nonprofits, relaying information back to EGG, monitoring sponsor media, networking with other youth, and contacting schools. Because of Isabella’s involvement and representation, Marina and Elpís believe EGG has improved its services and programs for both youth and adults.
The most startling part of conducting this research was the lack of widespread quantitative information regarding youth philanthropy. There are very limited studies and articles that view youth philanthropy from a global or national perspective, and the few that exist are often outdated. As a result, it is difficult to say in recent years how many young people participate in service and at what levels, how much youth donate, and how many hours youth contribute to nonprofits.
While understanding specific initiatives is important, especially because there are geographical, economic, and cultural differences, the larger picture broadens perspectives and opens dialogue. We are missing vital information concerning a significant part of the nonprofit sector. For perspective, the 86 YACs in Michigan distributed over $2 million and maintained over $60 million in assets during the 2021 grant cycle.
“There are very limited studies and articles that view youth philanthropy from a global or national perspective, and the few that exist are often outdated.”
Youth philanthropy programs are aware of this issue, and they have made steps forward. After a 2014 analysis of youth grantmaking by the Foundation Center (now Candid) identified the need for an online information hub, YouthGiving.org, was created. The site provides a self-reporting platform through which YACs can find information on where other youth grantmakers are located, how much was donated through these programs, what causes were being funded, and who received grants. However, the self-reporting nature of the hub means that many programs may be overlooked, outdated, or have incomplete information. Furthermore, there are no databases for youth volunteering, advocacy, donating, or research.
Another step forward was the publication of a 2011 assessment of Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) youth volunteer efforts in the Child and Youth Services Review. It is “the only known study to assess the status of youth volunteer service across the Latin American and Caribbean region.” Because the study had a broader view of youth volunteering services (YVS), it was able to show that, regardless of LAC regional differences, YVS programs were universally aligned with positive youth development goals. This provides strong evidence of the efficacy of YVS programs more powerfully than a study of a single program. Other studies on the topic that provide rich empirical data include a 2017 UNICEF analysis of youth participation in research and a 2016 study on youth volunteering in EU countries. However, studies like these are few and far between, and they require updated versions.
The benefits of youth philanthropy are consistent no matter the location, objectives, structure, or year of programs. The three main benefits for youth that effective programs exhibit are skills development, informed organizational decision-making, and deeper community relationships.
Lack of or faulty adult mentorship and unstable funding can prevent youth programs from continuing. Programs should be designed to:
Because youth representatives improve organizational decision-making and results through communications, outreach, and facilitation, more youth should be invited to higher levels of organizations. Whether it’s at a board level or part-time employment, additional opportunities for youth to be involved in internal operations and decision-making are crucial.
There is little to no holistic information and data regarding youth philanthropy, despite being integral to the nonprofit sector. Some foundations have made successful efforts to reduce this gap. For example, YouthGiving.org hosts a body of youth grantmaking data.
Youth philanthropy has a significant role in the nonprofit sector, and the importance of intentional and meaningful investment in engaging youth in philanthropy should not be underestimated. Cultivating and supporting youth engagement will not only have a clear social return on investment for decades to come but it will also generate equitable decision-making and representation in the world today.
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Mangrulkar, L., & Behrens, T. (2013, March). Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP) 20th Anniversary Report. Council of Michigan Foundations. https://www.michiganfoundations.org/resources/michigan-community-foundations-youth-project-mcfyp-20th-anniversary-report
McBride, A. M., Johnson, E., Olate, R., & O’Hara, K. (2011). Youth volunteer service as positive youth development in Latin America and the Caribbean. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(1), 34–41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2010.08.009
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Rosen, M., & Sedonaen, M. (2001). Changing the face of giving: An assessment of youth philanthropy. James G. Irvine Foundation. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED468453.pdf
Seller, S. (2020, October.) Community-centric youth philanthropy. Social Justice Funders Opportunity Briefs No. 6. The Sillerman Center. https://heller.brandeis.edu/sillerman/pdfs/opportunity-briefs/community-centric-youth-philanthropy.pdf
Smith, A., Peled, M., & Martin, S. (2020). Meaningfully engaging homeless youth in research. In C. Warf & G C.harles (Eds.), Clinical care for homeless, runaway and refugee youth. Springer. https://books.google.com/books?id=irzhDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA405
Weybright, E. H.,Trauntvein, N. E., & Deen, M. K. (2017, January). “It was like we were all equal”: Maximizing youth development using youth-adult partnerships. Journal of Park & Recreation Administration, 35(1), 5–19. https://doi.org/10.18666/JPRA-2017-V35-I1-7246
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