Need a Grant? Ask a Kid

Amy Bracken
April 1, 2000

Kari Pardoe is barely out of high school, but she’s already given away more money than many people do in a lifetime.

She has served on six grant making boards, worked at two foundations, and spoken in five states, in Vancouver and at last October’s White House Conference on Philanthropy. She also teaches philanthropy to fourth graders — a mere decade younger than she.

Pardoe is a youth philanthropist, one of thousands across the country who are building a movement that blends community service and youth development.

From the youth board of the Community Foundation of Waterloo, Iowa, which gave a youth group $250 to take Bosnian refugee students out to social gatherings, to the Michigan Youth Advisory Committee that awarded $10,000 to set up a Safe Haven project for at-risk youth, teens are controlling charitable dollars aimed at improving their communities and the lives of kids.

Youth philanthropy programs began growing as experiments a decade ago, and now operate in an estimated 26 states and at least six countries. In Michigan alone, where Pardoe makes her mark, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has invested $65 million in youth philanthropy since 1988. More than 8,000 youths have helped decide how to spend the Kellogg money and the challenge funds raised by community foundations.

But the bang is not just in the bucks. Youth philanthropy is touted as a new tool for empowering youth, teaching them valuable skills and educating them about their communities. It is seen as benefiting foundations, which may be overly removed from the community issues they seek to address, and communities, which gain from greater civic involvement by their youth.

Yet this growth has raised numerous questions, including how to raise the money, how to decide who gets it, how to assemble racially and socioeconomically diverse youth boards, how to determine how much good the grants do, and how much power to give the youths.

“There are still some people who feel that youth aren’t knowledgeable enough” to control charitable funds, says Mary Ann Burk, executive director of the Community Foundation of Waterloo.

Skeptics are irked by the idea of high school dropouts and former gang members sitting on boards, while others see such diversity as an asset — illustrating that even as youth philanthropy conferences, databases and best practice resources proliferate, the field remains far from standardized.

Big Bucks and Pennies

“Youth philanthropy” can mean many things, but in its most pure form it involves youth service and leadership in grant-making bodies. The structure of youth philanthropy organizations varies greatly, but if there is a prototype it is the Youth Advisory Committees (YACs) administered through the Council of Michigan Foundations’ (CMF) Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP), based in Grand Haven.

With backing from Kellogg, the nation’s largest foundation supporter of youth philanthropy, some 1,600 youths now serve as grant-makers on 90 YACs throughout Michigan. There are typically about 20 members on a board, ages 14 to 18, and an adult advisor or co-chair. The boards meet every two-to-four weeks to assess the needs of youth in the community, raise funds to match their Kellogg challenge grants, and award grants themselves.

“Other states want to replicate us and they do,” said Pardoe, 19, of Mt. Pleasant. “But it’s hard to get that much money.”

The CMF model has been replicated in Indiana, through the Lilly Endowment’s $150 million Giving Indiana Funds for Tomorrow initiative, as well as in British Columbia and Italy. Other large foundations — including the Ford Foundation in New York City; the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich.; the Heinz Family Foundation in Pittsburgh, Pa.; the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo.; and the Surdna Foundation in New York City — have launched their own youth philanthropy efforts.

But as with most youth development work, providers scramble for funds to give away. Local community foundations invest their own money, apply for grants from larger foundations, and team with government agencies. Ditto for nonprofits — except that they work with community foundations rather than drawing from their own funds.

In contrast, the Pine Crest Community Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., founded by students in 1995 and run by students, has no steady financial support. Youth conduct walkathons and penny donation drives, and canvass local businesses and residents, to come up with the $1,000 to $6,000 grants for local youth-oriented projects.

Not the Usual Crowd

Who are the youths who control this money? Some are like Maria Cuenca, an 18-year-old mother of two — and a board member at Girl’s Best Friend Foundation in Chicago, one of three foundations in the United States that give grants exclusively to programs for girls ages five through 18. Introduced to Girl’s Best Friend by a youth worker at Youth Service Project, Inc., she came on board because, she says, “More girls and young women are becoming pregnant and maybe having more than one child at a very young age.” She also wanted to help prevent girls from “getting pregnant, joining gangs, taking drugs and dropping out of school,” having grown up with friends who did all of the above.

One of the key objectives in youth philanthropy is to draw in more youths like Cuenca. That means “not pulling the already-chosen leaders,” the ultra-involved kids who seem to be everywhere, says Molly Cretsinger, a former consultant for Kellogg and, at 24, a five-year veteran and theoretician in the field. Cretsinger is author of a youth philanthropy handbook (“Youth Philanthropy: A Framework of Best Practice”) and is setting up a youth board at the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro (N.C.) in partnership with the local United Way.

Youth philanthropy organizers want board members who somehow reflect the populations they serve. That means a diversity of races, economic backgrounds, interests, personalities and social circles.

The Community Foundation of Silicon Valley, which gave $25,000 to 39 organizations last year, draws its board members from the clientele of the nonprofits it funds. Youth Program Officer Julie Dean says several former gang members, a teen mom and teens from alternative programs for high school dropouts have served on the board.

Young Sisters for Justice, part of the Boston Women’s Fund (BWF), is a female-focused program that puts a high priority on the backgrounds of its board members. The six teens on the board are all girls of color from low-income neighborhoods around Boston.

In fiscal year 1998-1999, the youths and the four adult board members gave $250,000 to programs dealing with issues such as domestic violence, gender equity in schools, affordable housing and reproductive rights.

But Terry Langston, a 31-year-old YAC advisor in Shiawasseetown, Mich., who has been involved in philanthropy since he was 19, thinks that youth philanthropy organizations have a long way to go in including African-Americans like himself. “People pay a lot of lip service,” he says.

And diversity presents its own challenges. In a survey conducted by Indiana’s Habits of the Heart, one YAC member wrote, “[A] problem which can easily be also thought of as an asset is in the different educational levels among the YAC. The group consists of very young and inexperienced students and then it also has the leading youth of the organizations they represent. It makes it difficult to accomplish tasks with such a wide variety of youth.”

So Many Causes...

The biggest and sometimes more painful challenge for youth board members is deciding where the money goes. There is generally little to give. Youth boards typically distribute about $20,000 a year. While some Michigan YACs give away $300,000, Sisters Empowering Sisters, a program run by Girl’s Best Friend in Illinois, gives away $10,000 annually. Individual grants generally range in the high hundreds to low thousands, with a high of $10,000.

Some examples:

• A $700 grant from the In Youth We Trust program at the Rockford Community Foundation in Illinois went to two grade school students living in a homeless shelter who were concerned that there were not enough resources at the shelter’s day care center. They bought cribs, baby clothing and diapers.

• A $980 grant from Sisters Empowering Sisters supported a program called “Girl Power,” in which girl artists ages 11 to 18 visited women-owned art galleries in Chicago to get ideas, then put together an art show and contest by and for girls in Ottawa, Ill.

• A Northern Michigan YAC gave Planned Parenthood $500 to run an “Out of the Locker Room Program” to help teenage boys explore sexuality issues and healthy decision-making.

“I think the most difficult aspect of youth grantmaking is deciding to whom you are going to dole out your money,” says Jeanie Ringelberg, who served on the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation Youth Committee in Michigan for four years before joining Youth on Board in Massachusetts. “When all of the applicants are awesome organizations, it is difficult to choose who receives how much money, if any.”

But small grants can make a big difference, to both the receiver and the giver. “To the giver, ultimately it doesn’t matter much,” says Bob Long, program director for the philanthropy and volunteerism programs at Kellogg. “When you hear the young people talk about these grants, in their eyes a $1,000 grant to a youth organization is a large amount of money.”

What’s important, say many youth philanthropy advocates, is the process. It usually strives to involve volunteering, site visits, retreats that help board members get to know each other, and a high level of youth control (i.e., minimal adult involvement).

“You couple volunteerism with resources and grant making, and you’ve got a really potent combination,” says Rob Collier, president of the Council of Michigan Foundations.

Adult Control?

The amount of youth control and adult involvement, however, varies greatly, and is sometimes a source of tension. Youth board decisions usually need to be approved by adult governing boards.

“Youth should have full control over the money they are allowed to grant,” says Ringelberg. “We always had the fact that adults still had to okay our decisions.”

But maybe it’s the idea that irritates rather than the reality. Ringelberg can’t remember the adult board ever turning down a decision by the youths.

Cretsinger, however, has witnessed cases in which adults “just kind of took over.”

“One thing that we’ve stressed is that adults should not be over-involved,” she says.

Final Result

Given the pint size of youth grants, short-term benefits for the community may be difficult to detect. The impact of philanthropy on the youths who practice it depends, of course, on the quality of the program and the youth workers who staff it. However, teens and youth workers say the boards help the youths: develop communication skills, including listening, articulating thoughts, and moderating their opinions; understand how foundations and nonprofit organizations work and the problems that their communities face; and increase their self-confidence, sense of empowerment and bonds with caring adults.

None of which can be proven. The Kellogg Foundation expects to release its eight-year longitudinal evaluation in 2001. This should show the impact of youth philanthropy on youth participants.

Many of the youths already feel the impact. Says Pardoe, “I love the feeling you get when you have made a difference in someone’s life.”


Anne Hoover

Executive Director

Community Partnerships with Youth

6319 Constitution Dr.

Fort Wayne, IN 46804

(219) 436-4402

Rob Collier


Council of Michigan Foundations

P.O. Box 599

Grand Haven, MI 49417

(616) 842-7080

Bob Long

W.K. Kellogg Foundation

One Michigan Ave. East

Battle Creek, MI 49017

(616) 968-1611

Karen Young


Youth on Board

58 Day St., 3rd Fl.

P.O. Box 440322

Somerville, MA 02144

(617)623-9900 ext. 1242

Bracken, Amy. "Need a Grant? Ask a Kid." Youth Today, April 2000, p. 20 - 21.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.