Blog / Grantmakers & Donors

Kids Are Philanthropists, Too!

by Amy Neugebauer
Kids Are Philanthropists, Too!
Want the latest articles, trends, and research delivered right to your inbox? Sign up for the Johnson Center’s email newsletter!

We humans — and within the philanthropic sector specifically — naturally resist change.

Yet, in the shadows of COVID-19, we have the opportunity to set a new course for society. “Historically pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine the world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next,” states Arundhati Roy (2020).

For years, the philanthropic sector has expressed intentions to become more participatory, equitable, impactful, and trust-based. Yet in spite of good intentions, the sector has continued to hold onto old ways of doing things. This moment is different.

According to a recent Monitor Institute (Kasper et al., 2021, p.4) report, “At this transitional moment, the potential for accelerating change goes beyond just the social and environmental issues that philanthropy aims to address; it also applies to the practice of philanthropy itself.

This is the moment for philanthropy to change, yet without new ways of thinking and doing, we will fall back into the old familiar ways of operating and this moment of opportunity will be lost. For this philanthropic evolution, we need children.

The Johnson Center’s namesake, Dorothy “Dottie” Johnson, has been a lifelong advocate for engaging kids and teenagers with philanthropy. Dottie and former Johnson Center executive director Kathy Agard were key leaders in helping to found Learning to Give (LTG). Now an endowed program of the Council of Michigan Foundations, LTG offers programs, curricula, and partnerships to help families and communities engage their youngest philanthropists!

Anyone can be a philanthropist — especially a kid.

When we think about philanthropy, we don’t think about children. We picture the Rockefellers, Bill and Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey, or MacKenzie Scott. The images that most likely pop into our heads are of oversized checks, galas, and transactions involving large sums of money. This is a sad testament to our own lack of imagination about what philanthropy is, can, and should be.

When we think of children, we picture lemonade stands, the collection of canned goods, and the donation of old toys. We do not see philanthropists. Even though adults are desperately trying to engage children in doing the right thing, we continue to message that children are only capable of gestures of kindness and the collecting of things.

Our work at The Giving Square aims not only to enrich how children see themselves as philanthropists but to broaden our society’s understanding and practice of philanthropy.

To that end, we dedicate ourselves to continually enriching our pedagogical practice and evaluating the impact of our work. While the pandemic challenged us to adapt to school closings, mask-wearing, and social distancing, it has also reinforced our own sense of “the urgency of now” in reimagining philanthropy and recasting the next generation as philanthropists.

This video was created by The Giving Square in partnership with leadership and artists from Youth Art for Healing to explore how the creation of art can be used to help others and ourselves.

When we keep the role of children small and transactional, we send the message that children do not have a role to play. In our informal polling of kids at community events in 2019 (Neugebauer, 2019), less than 45% of them reported that they feel like they matter to the community. Unfortunately, kids don’t see themselves as philanthropists, either.

It turns out that children are naturals at philanthropy. Having worked with over a thousand 8- to 12-year-olds across socio-demographics through our work at the Giving Square, my colleagues and I (and our community partners) see that kids have a great capacity to contribute to their communities.

Children are naturally empathetic at this age. They are fluid thinkers and optimists. They are also keenly aware of situations where life is not fair. When we imagine what philanthropy should be, we actually see that children are the most natural at acting out of empathy, fairness, and humility. This “better way” we want to build in the field of philanthropy, is the way of children.

How to engage children in philanthropy: Key places to start

Since our first pilot in 2017, The Giving Square has been collecting evidence that kids are philanthropists, too. We know it because we have seen how children of all backgrounds interface with our programs. We believe it because we see that with the right tools, frameworks, and experiences, kids embrace their potential and capacity as philanthropists. They start their philanthropic journey early and they embrace this identity as part of who they are….all the time.

The Giving Square’s year-end surveys in 2021 (Neugebauer, 2021) indicated that because of our Kids for Kids Fund program for 3rd–5th graders, 88.2% see themselves as philanthropists, 95.6% know of many different ways they can help others, and 92.6% know that being philanthropic is hard work.

As we engage children in philanthropy, we do not teach them the superficial tactics of the past. Rather, we connect them to the version of philanthropy that we want to evolve into.

Here is how we do it (and you can, too!):

  1. Start with grounding values. Our curriculum for engaging young people with philanthropy was built from carefully determined values such as dignity, equity, and empathy. Out of these values come the messages that everyone has a story, that we all give and all receive, and that our role is to make life more fair for others.
    By starting with the right values, we are accountable for encouraging kids to see the humanity in others while avoiding messages of pity.
  1. Broaden the interpretation of philanthropy. The origin of the term philanthropy (or “philanthropos”) is the combination of “philos” (loving in the sense of benefiting, caring for, and nourishing) and “anthropos,” (human being) (Merriam-Webster, n.d.; ELPIS, 2021).
    Rather than philanthropy just being about giving money away, we focus on all the different ways we can be giving of ourselves for the good of humanity. Philanthropy can be about doing research, speaking up for a friend or an issue, being a good listener, sharing your resources, helping someone do something, teaching something new. The possibilities are endless.
  1. Humanize the experience of those we are working to help. We often think that kids need to be in proximity to the people we are helping. Experiences at senior centers or food banks, for instance, may help children connect to the human stories behind the needs.
    Sometimes though, in our well-intentioned attempts to “get closer,” we may be invading the privacy of people who are going through a hard time. These experiences can also generate pity and disempower those we are trying to help.
    At CHANGE Philanthropy’s recent Unity Summit, panelists and participants shared statements like: “You do not need to see me to help me,” “Peddling our grief is traumatizing,” and “We shouldn’t need to hear direct stories of deep loss to warrant our empathy.” Rather than proximity, we recommend exploring first-person narratives and expressions found in videos, art, and books.
  1. Validate the ideas and instincts of children. Rather than constructing superficial and generic service projects for children to follow, we should be validating their own instincts and ideas.
    Research out of the University of Kent (Body et al., 2019) shows that while most kids have been engaged in service, only 20% can tell you the cause their effort helped.

According to 2021 surveys of participants in our programs (The Giving Square, 2021), the biggest barrier to children being philanthropic is that “adults need to get out of the way.” What happens when we do? Kids surprise us with the complexity of the issues they care about (bullying, climate change, systemic racism). They inspire us with their creative solutions (using tools we have never heard of!). They present us with new possibilities. In our work, we approach youth engagement with the expectation that we, the adults, have a lot to learn.

Photo of children gathered around large posters on a classroom wall with sticky notes on them. Photo courtesy of The Giving Square.

Photo of a young Black boy smiling and looking at the camera as he signs his name to a large novelty check representing a donation to a charity. Photo courtesy of The Giving Square.

What happens when we embrace the idea of children as philanthropists?

What if the philanthropic sector embraced children as philanthropists? What would happen if parents saw the true contributions young people could make to society? If the idea that kids are philanthropists became mainstream:

  1. We could realize the true potential of philanthropy. The statement “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” has been attributed to Frederick Douglass. While the quote’s provenance is debatable, its sentiment is still strong. Rather than incrementally shifting an entire system of philanthropy towards greater empathy, equity, and impact, we could reinvent it under the leadership of Generation Alpha.
  2. We could build an army of lifelong philanthropists! Imagine if philanthropy started in childhood and built up momentum throughout one’s life. There are many identities that we take on at a young age — reader, athlete, artist… Why not “philanthropist”?
  3. There would be an infusion of new ideas and solutions as a result of the natural abilities of children. Building off of children’s fluid and open thinking, we would have new ways to think about and address issues facing us all.
  4. We could make children’s experiences with giving and service meaningful and relevant. If we are doing this right, we are tapping into the emotions, the humanity, and the talents of children. If we are doing this right, we’re recognizing that kids are philanthropists, too!
We invite you to be a part of our efforts to champion the philanthropic capacity of children. For more tools and resources, contact us at The Giving Square or sign up for our newsletter.
Amy Neugebauer
Executive Director, The Giving Square
Amy Neugebauer is the Founder and Executive Director of The Giving Square, an organization born out of 20 years leading and advising organizations in the social innovation, community development, and philanthropy sectors.


Body, A., Lau, E., and Josephidou, J. (2019). Our charitable children: Engaging children in charities and charitable giving. University of Kent; Canterbury Christ Church University.

ELPIS. (2021). History of Philanthropy.

Kasper, G., Marcoux, J., Holk, J., & Morshed, J. (2021). What’s next for philanthropy in the 2020s: Seeing philanthropy in a new light. Monitor Institute by Deloitte.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Philanthropy.

Neugebauer, A. (2019). Do I Matter Public Survey [unpublished data]. The Giving Square.

Neugebauer, A. (2021). Kids for Kids Fund Post Student Survey [unpublished data]. The Giving Square.

Roy, A. (2020, April 3). The pandemic is a portal. The Financial Times.