Engaging youth in a lasting season of giving

Jill Warren Lucas

Sarah Marshall, now a student at Meredith College, speaks at the NC Rural Center forum on youth engagement through the KIPP model
Sarah Marshall, now a student at Meredith College, speaks at the NC Rural Center forum on youth engagement through the KIPP model

We all try to protect our children from seasonal maladies, but this time of year it’s especially difficult to shield young ones from a case of Gimmeeitis.

Parents across the globe are thinking the same thought:  If only we could harness naughty energy and make it nice.  But how do we redirect a child’s focus on receiving to become part of the process of giving? Is it possible to convert young pouters into budding philanthropists who look beyond their own wants – not just at Christmas, but throughout the year – to ensure that the least among us get what they most need?

Experts say the best and most lasting way to engage children in charitable giving is for the adults around them to actively model the behavior.

“The No. 1 predictor of whether someone will volunteer as an adult is whether they do it as a child or they see grownups doing it,” says Concetta Bencivenga, Executive Director of generationOn, the youth division of the Points of Light Institute. “The fact is we’re all hard-wired to help. Where we get stuck is, how?”

Modeling philanthropic behavior doesn’t necessarily mean teaching junior how to write a check. Consider age-appropriate projects, such as helping young children make cupcakes for a charity bake sale. Encourage older ones to shovel snow for an elderly neighbor, or perhaps volunteer at a local food bank. The entire family could participate in an organized walk or run, or “adopt” someone from a community-sponsored angel tree to ensure that holiday gifts are received.

Nancy Brown, a certified fund raising executive in La Crosse, Wisc., shares the story of a colleague’s daughter who raised money for a nonprofit by making and selling friendship bracelets. The child’s modest donation was warmly received by a representative who explained how her gift would make a difference. The connection made a lasting impact. Now 12, the girl continues to earn money in a variety of creative ways to support causes she believes in.

“She just made her first installment of $250 on a $1,000 pledge toward a seat in a new performing arts facility,” Brown says, adding that the burgeoning patron comes from a family of givers. “It’s not as though she’s getting her money handed to her.  She’s earning her own money and making a decision on how to spend it.”

Some adults, including those who work multiple jobs to make ends meet, may think they lack the time or resources to model meaningful service.  Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, President and CEO of the North Carolina Community Foundation, believes they often underestimate the impact of their everyday acts of kindness.

“Sometimes people don’t see themselves as philanthropists, but they do give time, talent and treasure to causes they believe in,” Whiteside says.  “You may not think much about giving canned goods to your church, but you are teaching your kids about generosity, about community needs, and sharing values that are important.”

The foundation strives to provide young people in low-wealth communities the tools needed to identify problems and work with nonprofits to address them. Through its Youth and Philanthropy initiative, civic-minded students develop real-world job skills to analyze needs, address conflict resolution and manage finances.

“Toward the end they take in grant applications from local nonprofits and decide who will receive $5,000 in grants,” says Whiteside. “These kids work so hard on making the best decisions. I always tell the nonprofits that get these grants that they should be very proud.”

The foundation also supports the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) school model, a results-driven curriculum with an extended instructional day focused on achievement for all students, regardless of race or socio-economic background.

Sarah Marshall, a 2012 graduate of KIPP Pride High School in Northampton County, is a student at Meredith College in Raleigh. Encouraged by compassionate parents, Marshall helped with school bake sales and other small-scale fundraisers as a child. But she credits a seventh grade opportunity to help coordinate a volunteer trip to New Orleans for opening her eyes to both the satisfaction of giving back and the empowerment of having a leadership role.

“There’s always an adult with you, but they put the responsibility on you,” she says of her KIPP experience. “When you treat students as adults as a young age, it gives us the confidence to take on anything you want to do.”

Marshall, who is carrying 18 demanding credit hours in her first semester, has managed to make time for volunteering. She travels to diversity fairs to interest young women in attending Meredith and is training to work with the school’s autism program.

“I finally found a way to fit it into my schedule,” says Marshall, who is considering a career in social work. “I’m ready to come back from Christmas break and work with kids. I think it will be very rewarding.”

Even the youngest children appreciate the concept of giving back, says generationOn’s Bencivenga. Through Be a Joy Maker, the organization has partnered with the toymaker Hasbro to provide 100,000  gifts for needy children in exchange for documented acts of service.

“It’s a great way for kids to really get in that spirit of giving so it’s not about the stuff, it’s about the service,” she said. “They can rake leaves, participate in Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, whatever. We just care that they serve.”

The project delivers kids both the fulfillment of doing a good deed and the joy of getting a toy into the hands of a child who otherwise wouldn’t have one. It’s what jaded adults might call a win-win.

“With our cynical grown-up glasses we can say the majority of giving happens at the end of the year because of tax deductions,” Bencivenga says. “But it’s good to look through kids’ eyes and see that it’s fun to give back. It’s a great way to be thankful and appreciative and have a good time.”

Working to convert holiday goodwill into year-round benevolence is worth the effort, says Amy D’Unger, Board Chairman of Compassionate Kids, a global, online community that connects children and families with local causes.

“People sometimes get burned out in terms of time, energy or money,” D’Unger says. “The key is that even little projects can make a big difference.  I think it’s better to do small things throughout the year rather than one big project that you forget about until the holidays roll around again. It keeps the kids engaged, plus it sends the message that it’s always important to help the earth, people and animals – not just once a year at the holidays.”

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