Who am I and what am I doing here?

My name is Sahar and I am a philanthropist (and a college student, older sister, and doting dog owner among other things).

For years I avoided using the term philanthropy because each time I heard it, I envisioned wealthy, white men writing checks. It carried a stigma. I liked the word service instead: it felt inclusive and action-oriented. Yet, when I reflect on my early involvement, I realize that I have found a niche in family philanthropy that inspires me to try and reshape its boundaries.

 

I started this journey around the age of five, visiting my mom’s office at a nonprofit organization. The environment seemed busy and exciting, and I wanted to be a part of it. No doubt I was more of a nuisance than help: I answered phones when no one was looking, “recycled” loose papers within my reach, and wagged my chubby finger at her colleagues who didn’t appear to be working hard enough. But my intention was pure: I was helping because I thought I could be useful. Since then, I have continued to throw myself into work where I see room to create change.

My journey started with a small family foundation and a group of friends.

When I was 11, I joined my friends in forming a junior board under a family foundation. It wasn’t my family’s foundation, but I reveled in the work: we drafted bylaws, ran meetings, edited minutes, brainstormed for projects, and voted on where we could have the most impact. As a private operating foundation, we wrote grants to fund projects and fundraised for NGOs whose work we admired. We witnessed the positive effect of our actions and proudly owned them. For one of our first projects we received a $500 grant from a local charitable foundation and raised over $2,000 through a letter-writing campaign. Looking back now, that money was a drop in the ocean of giving, but it taught us something.

It was my light bulb moment: we could do anything if we had organization, work ethic, and clearly stated goals. I still believe this is true! 

Three years later, we (the next gen board) were connected with other young people like us, who were involved in similar roles at family foundations. We jumped at the opportunity to create and grow a national network that is now known as Youth Philanthropy Connect (YPC). We hosted our first conference in Southern California with the goal to engage more young people like us in philanthropy through professional development and networking opportunities. Gifted by the generous support and guidance of our mentors, we picked keynote speakers, arranged accommodations, planned breakout sessions and more. And with momentum from the success of the first year, we began planning the next.

It's been nearly 10 years since I got my start in philanthropy, so now is the time to reflect on what my work means and why I participate. At first, I dismissed philanthropy as a productive avenue of change for youth. But my impression about philanthropy has broadened over time. Through my time with our junior board and with YPC, I’ve found a place.

I found my place as I led sessions at national philanthropy forums on the importance of youth involvement. I found my place as we came together for our first YPC conference and realized our vision was bigger than any of us. I found my place as I networked and met with the unstoppable forces that I called my mentors.

And I’m still finding places as I write this. I’ve volunteered in soup kitchens, animal shelters, hospice centers, housing units for homeless families, the Special Olympics, and with coastal restoration projects. I branched out over a summer in Bosnia-Herzegovina running a program aimed at easing ethnic tensions. And I remain committed to the resolution of social issues through the lens of philanthropy.

I have been lucky to be surrounded by inspiring change makers over the course of my twenty years — my family, mentors, and friends are invested in our community and in shaping our youth to have altruistic priorities and open hearts. And while I was inclined toward humanitarianism before I even knew what it meant, I owe my accomplishments to my strong support system. 

On the conscious involvement of youth philanthropists 

I wouldn’t have had these opportunities had our notion of "family" participation in philanthropy been limited to blood relatives over the age of 30. And it’s important to realize that family philanthropy doesn’t have to be limited to family or by age. Those senior board members — who envision the “next generation” in philanthropy to exclusively mean their 30+ year old children — don’t know the energy, ideas, and hearts they are missing. Neither do foundation leaders that don't think to engage young people outside of family ties. We can redefine the field if we can see philanthropy from a new angle.

My friends who’ve inherited philanthropy as part of their family life have an amazing opportunity, but there’s little effort to extend an invitation outward. We are brimming with energy and eager to contribute but many of us have no starting point. There’s an untapped resource in the help of local youth that we should harness through family philanthropy.

The definition of the next generation should expand to be more inclusive — from fourth graders, to neighborhood kids, to college students and beyond. Family philanthropy is blessed with an opportunity to field dynamic and diverse voices by bringing in young, non-relatives to participate. If we can involve our youth, then what’s stopping us?

What I learned from family philanthropy early on has shaped me both professionally and personally. I learned how to think critically and analyze solutions. I’ve seen firsthand just how far compassion and empathy can go. I’ve practiced professional etiquette and developed my work ethic. And most importantly, the feeling of empowerment lit a fire within me to always reach for my potential.  

So how can we employ a fresh model while continuing to further the mission and philanthropic goals of our organizations? Here are my five recommendations to start: