Learning by Giving: Jewish Teen Philanthropy

The work of a teen foundation exemplifi es the type of challenge, exploration, and risk-taking found at the core of high-quality Jewish experiential education, which enables young people to “grow towards a more complex participation in Jewish life.”

Through Jewish teen foundations, young people learn about philanthropy by doing it—they experience both the challenges and thrills of giving money away to support issues close to their hearts. Here’s a brief sketch of a fictional, but typical, teen foundation. At the start of the school year, a group of twenty 8th-10th graders comes together as a foundation board. They serve a year-long term, and as with many “adult” organizations, each board member accepts a responsibility to “give or get” a financial contribution to the board. The teens each agree to contribute $180 of their bnei mitzvah gift money or summer job income to a shared pool, creating a total of $3,600. An adult donor in the community partners with the program, providing a 1:1 match, which leverages the teens’ funds and brings the sum to $7,200. This money (not an insignificant amount, especially for a group of teenagers) serves as the grantmaking pool of the teen foundation.

In order to determine how and where to give away the money, the teen board members create a mission statement for their foundation, identify issue areas of shared concern, and set out to learn about nonprofit organizations that work within their declared mission focus. They write and distribute a Request for Proposals to organizations interested in applying for grants, research organizations through site visits and presentations, and work through consensus to reach group decisions about how to allocate their funds. All the while, the teens look to Jewish texts, traditions, and values to inform guiding principles, prioritization, and decision-making. They mark the end of the program with a community-wide celebration, where they present checks to the grantees they selected and reflect on their experiences working and learning together as a board.

While Jewish teen philanthropy is, on the surface, about giving money away, it is at its core about education and engagement. In a 2008 survey of Jewish teen philanthropy programs conducted by the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Jewish teen foundation organizers identified their top three goals as (1) to educate participants about basic philanthropic principles, (2) to teach Jewish values involved in philanthropy, and (3) to examine need in the US and the world (at large, as well as “Jewish” need).

Nearly 40 Jewish teen foundations exist today, running out of day schools, synagogues, federations, community foundations, summer camps, JCCs, Boards of Jewish Education, and other Jewish communal agencies throughout North America. These programs join more than 300 “secular” youth grantmaking programs in the United States and several other countries. The field of teen philanthropy is still rather young: the earliest Jewish programs emerged in the mid-1990s, about a decade after the launch of “secular” programs. Yet, already several evaluations and studies, along with compelling anecdotal evidence, have demonstrated that teen philanthropy offers a unique approach towards strengthening community and leadership—not only for teen participants, but also for the adults involved and the community at large.

In “Best Practices in Youth Philanthropy,” Pam Garza and Pam Stevens identify the underlying strength of youth philanthropy as its “integration of philanthropic tradition and values with the principles of youth development and community development to create new options for developing young people and enhancing community life.” Jewish teen philanthropy, in particular, has the power to build community on multiple levels. We can illustrate this with an image of five concentric circles, starting with the individual teen as the center and moving outward.

1. Individual level (teen)

“All young people need opportunities for contribution and opportunities to make decisions with real consequences,” according to a framework prepared by the Youth Development Institute of the Fund for the City of New York (Garza and Stevens). Jewish teen philanthropy provides authentic opportunities to develop skills, knowledge, confidence, and leadership abilities in an area central to Jewish life and community. The grantmaking process of a Jewish teen foundation is not a simulation exercise played with Monopoly money or a theoretical question of “what if you had thousands of dollars to give away?” It is a real-world experience, taking place in real time, with real money, and with real implications. As she takes on the significant responsibilities required of a grantmaker, a teen starts to see herself as a leader who can make a difference in her community.

2. Group level (teen-to-teen)

A distinguishing feature of Jewish teen philanthropy programs, in contrast to many other educational initiatives, is that young people participate at a decision-making level. As a board, teens chart their own course, from creating the foundation’s mission statement to deciding where their money will go. The work of a teen foundation exemplifies the type of challenge, exploration, and risk-taking found at the core of high-quality Jewish experiential education, which enables young people to “grow towards a more complex participation in Jewish life” (Joseph Reimer and Dr. David Bryfman, “What We Know about Experiential Jewish Education”). Furthermore, the collective nature of the program creates a space for participants to experiment with different leadership roles and communication styles as they figure out how to work together towards a common goal.

3. Organizational level (teen-to-adult)

Jewish teen foundations are not entirely youth-driven; adults are involved as advisors, facilitators, and guest speakers. Teens also interact with (adult) lay leaders, executive directors, and other senior staff of nonprofit organizations as they conduct site visits and interviews with potential grantees. Jewish teen philanthropy turns the typical power dynamic between teens and adults on its head. Here, the teens hold the decision-making and grant-making power, while adult nonprofit representatives work to “make the case” for the teens’ support of their organizations. Teens eagerly welcome the opportunity to sit in the power seat, and once empowered to do so, stretch themselves to meet all sorts of leadership demands. Teens also learn first-hand about the challenges of bureaucracy, the pressures of deadlines, and the frustrations of teamwork; they gain an appreciation for the hard work performed in nonprofits and foundations. For the adults involved, this new power paradigm changes the way they perceive and interact with young people. They come to realize that these teens—poised, thoughtful, and brimming with creative ideas—are not only tomorrow’s leaders, but leaders in the here and now.

4. Community level

While Jewish teen philanthropy’s primary constituency is the teen set, its impact extends well beyond teen participants. Families benefit as parents trade in the usual carpool talk for conversations with their teens about giving priorities and their family values. Jewish organizations benefit from the involvement of thousands of young people in Jewish communal life. At a time—after bnei mitzvah and before Hillel or birthright Israel—when so many young people are uninterested and unengaged in Jewish life, teens often beg their teen foundation advisors for permission to stay involved after the program has ended (what a wonderful problem for schools, synagogues, and other host organizations to face!). Communal leaders are thrilled to have a new cadre of smart, caring, and energetic people to call upon for leadership positions, public speaking events, fundraising meetings, and service opportunities. Nonprofit organizations, whether or not they are awarded grants in the end, appreciate the unique opportunity to educate young people about their work. And while Jewish teen foundations are not “all about the money,” they are directing significant funds to support communal organizations. In 2009-10, Jewish teen foundations gave away over $570,000—strengthening community through philanthropic dollars.

5. Field level

Jewish teen philanthropy bridges the domains of Jewish education, teen leadership, and philanthropy—and in so doing, Jewish teen foundations have established a new field in Jewish life. Local program leaders are eager to share their expertise and experience with others, modeling an all-too-rare degree “open source” sharing. Following the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that “our best thoughts come from others,” Jewish teen philanthropy curricular materials, “best practices,” and how-to guides created by leaders in the field are posted in a central program bank (www.jtfn.org) for the benefit of other educators and communal leaders.

As Jewish teen philanthropy pulls from the most promising practices and strategies used in Jewish education, teen leadership, and philanthropy, it produces a whole greater than the sum of its parts. By trusting and empowering young people to set their own priorities and make their own decisions, Jewish teen philanthropy provides teens with an opportunity to explore Judaism in ways that are both relevant and meaningful. By calling upon adults to facilitate and support (but not direct) teens in challenging group work, Jewish teen philanthropy transforms the way in which adults and teens relate to one another. And by structuring programs that operate in the “real world” with real money, Jewish teen philanthropy gives young people voice in communal conversations—a benefit not only for teens, but for the Jewish community as a whole.

Perhaps the best case for Jewish teen philanthropy can be made by the teens themselves, who aren’t shy about the impact these programs have on them. As Kari, a 16-year old teen philanthropist in Phoenix, put it, “It might sound corny, but the work I’ve done has really made me a different person. I feel like rather than watching from the sidelines, I’m jumping right in and helping to make a difference. Being trusted to give $10,000 away is a great responsibility, and having done so, I feel like a trusted member of the community.” ♦

Stefanie Zelkind is the director of the Jewish Teen Funders Network, a project of the Jewish Funders Network. She can be reached at szelkind@jfunders.org.

Stefanie Zelkind
Strengthening Community
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Fall 2010