Youth philanthropy: A little can yield a lot

Eric Rowles
Eric Rowles

Eric Rowles

Most folks know of Margaret Mead’s quote “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…”

It’s a saying that we’ve heard dozens of times. But how many us have actually had an opportunity to see this in action – to observe in real-time the power of a collective spark catch fire?

Fortunately, in North Carolina, we all have the opportunity to witness this act of community transformation through a collaborated action – by observing and learning from some of the most unassuming and non-traditional of philanthropists.

They may not be the most financially established “donor,” or the most resourced or politically connected “giver.”

But they have an insight on how to change their neighborhoods, schools and communities that is unprecedented, undeniable and unbridled.

They’re the experts of addressing the issues facing youth in their communities.

They’ve lived firsthand the challenges and obstacles that come during these trying times. And like Margaret Mead, they believe in the power of change via action.

They’re as young as 14 and as old as 19, and they are changing their communities in real-time.

North Carolina is currently engaged in a powerful and unprecedented movement of youth giving through the North Carolina Youth Giving Network.

Through an intricate web of over public and private funders (such as the North Carolina Community Foundation), partners (like NCGives), and youth serving agencies (like N.C. Communities In Schools), the Youth Giving Network has engaged over 900 high-school-aged students in giving over 70,000 hours of service and granting over $300,000 in community funds since 2005.

And in turn, they’re turning heads in their communities.

This spring alone, 13 different youth philanthropy sites implemented a youth-conducted grantmaking process that provided young people with the direct opportunity to review and select the most promising and impactful social-change projects affecting their communities.

An unprecedented need of over $170,000 in grantmaking requests was received throughout the state – of which the members of the Youth Giving Network were challenged to review and assess knowing that they did not have access to enough resources to approve each request.

Rather, through an intensely competitive and comprehensive process, these youth experts eventually reached consensus to allocate a total of over $35,000 back to their communities.

And although $35,000 seems like a small number, it’s amazing to watch young people do a lot with so little, including the partial or full funding of youth ideas such as:

-A culinary-arts training and mentoring program for youth struggling in traditional education

-A student run “meals on wheels” to deliver food to unemployed and impoverished neighbors

-A youth facilitated donation store for low-income youth to receive free prom dresses

-A foster-care transition program to provide youth with basic supplies like toothbrushes and combs

-A youth cooking club to fund meals for families staying at a local homeless shelter

-A photo-journal mentoring project capturing experiences of youth immigrants

-A service camp bringing together Girl Scouts and youth with special needs

-Paint and books used to reinvigorate an after-school center

-A youth facilitated diversity forum to address stereotypes and cliques in schools

The work of “philanthropy” is not limited to the large financial donations of a wealthy few.

Rather, the purest form of philanthropy is found in the giving of us all – to channel our collective time, talent and treasure.

And if you ever wondered if it can really work – especially when the financial treasure is minimal, but the talent is great – just check out the giving that is occurring in North Carolina.

It’s happening all around us. And in 15 sites this year, it’s being done by our young people – a lot! Margaret Mead would be quite proud.

Eric Rowles is president of Leading to Change, a consultancy that operates the North Carolina Youth Giving Network. The network can be found online at

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