Youth Philanthropy Tightens Bonds Within School and Beyond
The 2009-2010 school year was the first that the Shoshana S. Cardin School participated with other high schools around North America in Project ROPE. The core goals of Project ROPE, as articulated in the teacher’s manual, are “to teach teens the Jewish roots, values and imperatives of philanthropic giving; to give them an understanding of fundraising fundamentals including the grantmaking process; and to provide them with the hands-on learning experience of running a fundraising campaign for a cause of their choice and responsibly allocating the funds raised.”
However, in my experience over the course of the year, a fourth, unwritten goal of the program also became apparent, which was to strengthen the student community, the school community and the larger Cardin community around philanthropy. In Best Practices in Youth Philanthropy, the Coalition of Community Foundations for Youth identifies five categories of best practice for youth philanthropy, one of which is connecting to the community. Participating in Project ROPE encouraged students to connect to the greater community, including the greater Baltimore non-Jewish philanthropic community. The Project ROPE committee volunteered at a downtown Baltimore soup kitchen and learned first-hand about the needy people served by this organization. Committee members had to articulate their mission to many different constituent groups: their peers, the faculty and the board of trustees. Students also had to approach various individuals in the larger community, from fundraising professionals to donors. Each of these connections strengthened the community around the Project ROPE goals.
To initiate Project ROPE and ensure faculty support, I explained the program to the faculty during teacher week in June 2009. Teachers were asked to nominate 10th and 11th grade students who they felt would be the most appropriate participants in Project ROPE. I also contacted Matt Freedman, chief strategy and development officer at the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, to explain Project ROPE, enlist his support and tap his expertise. Matt gave me suggestions for Baltimore philanthropists beyond the Cardin school board to whom the students could speak. I sent invitations to the selected students for an informational luncheon, where Project ROPE and the commitment involved was explained. Of the 19 students selected, 18 responded and came to the lunch during orientation week prior to the start of the 2009-2010 school year. After hearing about Project ROPE and learning together, 12 students chose to participate. Thus began the “hidden agenda” of community building around Project ROPE.
It was very encouraging to see that over 60% of the students invited to participate chose to do so, inasmuch as today’s teens are not known for looking beyond their own personal needs and desires. Indeed, American society (or at least Madison Avenue) promotes materialism and self-serving behaviors in many ways, bombarding teens with the message that they need each subsequent generation of iPhone and other technological devices, regardless of the condition of the ones they currently own. Rarely does even the fine print of promotional email or advertisements encourage teens to give their slightly used electronic item to someone else when they trade-up for the newest and best. As educators in Jewish day schools, we have the obligation to stress the positive aspects of the larger society in which we live, but in a way which is at the same time consistent with our own core Jewish values and beliefs. This requires us to teach our students the Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam, in order to enable each student to assimilate these core values as an integral part of him- or herself.
The Project ROPE committee met weekly to develop a mission statement; learn Jewish text about tzedakah and the year’s theme, disadvantaged youth; research organizations in Baltimore to which the students might want to donate the money they raised; plan fundraising activities, and learn from community professionals and lay leaders. As a cohesive group, the students developed their own understanding of disadvantaged youth and refined the goals they would look to when choosing a local organization to support. After much research and debate, they wrote and sent requests for proposals (RFPs) to three local organizations that met the strict criteria they had developed.
Online research to discover organizations in the Baltimore area that served disadvantaged youth proved to be a daunting task. Students were taken aback after putting “disadvantaged youth Baltimore” into Google yielded over 45,000 hits. While this became a teachable moment for using search engines, the committee was forced to regroup and reevaluate the specific criteria the students were interested in for their philanthropic efforts. The committee refined its criteria and began to research organizations in earnest. It was interesting to watch each student become a passionate advocate for these local organizations based just on what he or she read online. (I noted the same passion displayed by the Israel Committee students from each of the participating schools after the students studied the RFPs and heard by phone from leaders of each Israeli organization.)
Students were encouraged to call the organizations and ask specific questions about their work with disadvantaged youth. Many students were frustrated by their inability to speak directly with leaders at certain organizations and this experience brought the group together once again to discuss strategies in dealing with professionals in nonprofits. Students spent quite a bit of time on this preliminary research and then had to advocate for the organization before the entire committee. Committee members asked challenging questions, and much time was spent discussing, and arguing about, the value of each organization and whether it fit the very specific criteria developed by the whole committee. A decisive factor was making personal visits to each of the organizations. Ultimately, three RFPs were sent out and one was returned to the committee.
Students also developed a PowerPoint presentation so that they could explain the importance of Project ROPE to their peers and to the board of trustees. The committee spent hours practicing and preparing the presentation and it was well received by the entire student body. Students not involved in Project ROPE, as well as faculty members, asked probing questions, and the committee members were passionate and informative with their responses. The Project ROPE community was strengthened and the number of participants increased with each presentation the students made.
The Cardin student community has a strong commitment to tzedakah and tikkun olam. Students have initiated social-action minyanim and JUST Cardin, a student-led social-action committee. Project ROPE added another layer to the participating students’ burgeoning commitment to these core values. Committee members needed to become informed advocates in order to ask others to support their work. They were successful in rising to the challenge of articulating to their peers why supporting Project ROPE’s goals and ideals was important to the school and the community.
Nothing in the RAVSAK manual or in the training process prepared the students for the anxiety associated with contacting and speaking with individual donors. Students paid careful attention to Shoshana Cardin herself as she explained what a donor listens to and looks for when approached to make a financial commitment. Matt Freedman spent time with the committee explaining about passion and knowledge when making the “ask.” Matt explained to our teens that they are already experts in asking for things; they should simply channel the emotions engendered by, and prior experiences learned in, asking their parents for money! This really struck a note with the students but did not adequately prepare them for speaking to potential donors.
Luckily for our students, Baltimore has a compassionate and educated community which understands that these teens are starting out upon the road to lifelong philanthropic endeavors and need to be assisted along the way. Many of the donors used the one-on-one asks as teaching opportunities, and the students gained valuable insight into making the next ask better. The committee debriefed each encounter with donors and developed new strategies for the next ask. For example, how to reengage the donor who handed a student’s father a $100 bill and asked him to tell his daughter how proud the donor is of the students in Project ROPE, in order to let that donor know that while his donation is appreciated, the students would like the opportunity to sit down and speak with him individually about what they are doing.
Of course not all of the experiences were positive—the time the very, very nervous student made an appointment with a donor and the donor never showed up comes immediately to mind—but there was an immeasurable growth curve for each of the students who participated in this aspect of the program. The donors who came to school to meet with the students (in my absence) were impressed with Project ROPE and had suggestions for the students and for me. In general, the donors had positive things to say; however, there were some scathing criticisms that I then turned into learning opportunities for individual students and for the committee as a whole.
Youth philanthropy through Project ROPE allowed our students to join broader communities while strengthening each larger circle. Project ROPE enabled Cardin students to expand these connections by working together with other Project ROPE committees in communities throughout North America.
What is the ultimate goal of youth philanthropy? Ensuring that we have teens who understand how and why it is important to perpetuate a culture of philanthropy now and for the future. Project ROPE has shown itself to be an important and most worthwhile means in achieving this goal for our youth. ♦
Barbie Prince is Head of School at the Shoshana S. Cardin School in Baltimore, Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.