Giving Away Millions

Alex Wirth
September 2, 2011

What happens when you give thirty Millennials five million dollars? You're expecting the stereotypical answer, "something magical." Well, it is definitely magical, along with stressful, intense and provocative.

Now you may be asking yourself, what is so hard about giving away money? One short answer: nothing. How the question should be phrased is: What is so hard about giving away money responsibly?

In 2006, State Farm started a signature initiative where each year they placed five million dollars in the hands of thirty youth ages 17-20 to fund youth-led service-learning projects across the United States and Canada in amounts of 25,000 to 100,000 dollars.

Money like that doesn't come easily to nonprofits and schools in today's economy. But what makes State Farm's initiative even more remarkable is that young people design and implement the grant process. And, as an associate board member, I can say wholeheartedly that youth make every single decision.

When youth are given that kind of power, they inherit a certain responsibility because adults have placed both trust and resources in them. And it is that responsibility that leads to the stressful, intense, and provocative side of things.

Every grant I read reminded me that I have the power to actually make a project happen. This feeling never got old, even after reading 50 grants that totaled over 500 pages.

Unlike other organizations that I have read grants for, it is not marking down numbers and sending it back for the higher ups to decide in some mystic formula. With the State Farm Youth Advisory Board, the youth make all the decisions and so they have added responsibility.

This mantra is exemplified in the full board meeting where all 30 "yabbies" come together in person to talk about which grants to fund. Those that have read the grants present them in elaborate PowerPoints that lead one of my fellow yabbies to explain during a work session, "We are butchering the gods of PowerPoint!"

These presentations quickly lead to questions ranging from how is the project youth led? Is it actually service-learning? How does it have a greater impact on the community? And the most tedious one of them all: Is the budget justifiable?

People quickly become attached to their grants as everybody wants to bring money back to the zone they represent, or to their issue area. Tensions can flare, people get frustrated and grants pass or get declined by one or two vote margins.

At our funding meeting we reviewed and voted on upwards of 100 grants with each taking anywhere from ten to thirty minutes to decide on. In the course of four days we spent over 30 hours in the boardroom debating grants. Where did this get us?

In the end, we only ended up funding a little over 3.7 million dollars, which is a true testament that youth are responsible people who, when given such an extraordinary opportunity, make sure not to take it lightly.

Through our funding, thousands of young people across the country will be touched by the magic of service-learning and communities will benefit from engaged young people fighting issues that range from the high school dropout crisis, to improving a city's water quality, to increasing awareness around teen seatbelt use.

Yet, what makes the State Farm Youth Advisory Board so special is the Millennials who make up the board. They are all promising young leaders who put in the long hours that make this amazing initiative happen.

If you are between the ages of 17 and 20 and are interested in joining this magic (and the stress) you can apply for the board until October 2nd. If you are looking for funding, instructions will be posted on our website this spring.

Five years ago, State Farm took a risk and started up the youth advisory board, putting five million dollars in the hands of 30 Millennials. Five years later, over 70 youth had had the privilege of being in the boardroom, making tough decisions about funding. Almost 19 millions dollars have been granted out. And over a million lives have been touched.

A very worthwhile investment and one that the State Farm Youth Advisory Board remembers every time we approve a grant.

Alex Wirth is the only young person in the country advising the nation's two largest youth service organizations,   and Youth Service America.  He attends Harvard University.  Follow him on Twitter.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post, and is reprinted here with permission.