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Giving youth the power to give

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By Leslie Williams

With large foundations parsing out millions of dollars in grant money each year, a group with $10,000 to distribute might feel a little insignificant.

Not so, when the money is in the hands of young people excited about what just a few dollars can accomplish in their communities, says Nikki Devillers.

Devillers, assistant vice president at Foundation for the Carolinas in Charlotte, oversees the foundation’s Teen Impact Fund, a year-old program that entrusts high school students with $10,000 to distribute to community programs.

Last year, the teens awarded grants to three community groups, supporting a healthy-behaviors program for teens, another that helps teens address race, class, gender and other differences, and a third that works to remove alcohol advertising from convenience stores.

The fund is one of six like it operating through community foundations in North Carolina, says Eric Rowles, a consultant for Youth Leadership Institute, which helped spearhead youth grantmaking programs in North Carolina.

Foundation for the Carolinas began its foray into youth grantmaking through a Charlotte high school, in cooperation with United Way of Central Carolinas.

The foundation later shifted out of the high school program and created the Teen Impact Fund to reach deeper into the community.

Two of the existing six programs, run by foundations in Vance and Gaston counties, will begin their first grant rounds this fall.

The other four, which include Foundation for the Carolinas, The Community Foundation of Davie County, the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro and The Winston-Salem Foundation, completed a first round of grants at the end of the 2005-06 school year.

All six programs were launched with the help of the Youth Leadership Institute, a national youth philanthropy organization, and NC Gives, a North Carolina initiative that works to increase giving among women, minorities and youth.

Grant money for the funds comes from foundation endowments and private donors, and ranges from $2,500 to $10,000.

At Foundation for the Carolinas, Devillers and other adults act as moderators for meetings of the Teen Impact Fund board, which includes about 20 local teenagers.

For the most part, she says, her role was to ask the kids questions and give them the basic tools for deciding how to grant money, but when it came time to make decisions, the teens took the lead.

Rowles says the beauty of such programs is that they ask diverse groups of young people to identify issues of importance in their communities.

“We’re bringing young people to the table who traditionally haven’t been asked that,” he says.

The movement to create the programs began in October 2004 with the North Carolina Discovery Alliance, a forum that brought together organizations working with young people to discuss how to get the ball rolling.

Youth Leadership Institute was asked to conduct a one-day workshop for interested North Carolina organizations, but was intended to spark something larger, says Rowles.

Continued interest kept Youth Leadership Institute involved with the foundations, helping provide the necessary tools and training to lay the groundwork for the programs.

“The first year was, for the communities, probably surprisingly successful in their minds,” Rowles says.  “They had tried to do this before, but what they didn’t have was an organization that was there to help them out.”

Devillers is excited about the move forward, she says, now that her foundation has been through the process once.

Last year was a learning process, she says, but it engaged a group of young people who were energized by the importance of their task.

Rowles says he believes youth have a special depth of experience that is critical for communities to tap.

“In essence, this creates an opportunity for young people to share their expertise,” he says.

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