Engaging Parents and Guardians in Youth Philanthropy

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Earlier this month we shared the Sillerman Center’s ongoing youth philanthropy research as it relates to COVID-19, based on The State of Youth Philanthropy: 2020-2021, and the success of hybrid youth philanthropy program models. In that blog, we also discussed some of the challenges that young people and their adult supporters have faced throughout the pandemic. An additional area we’d like to highlight is the importance — and challenges — of family (i.e. parent and guardian) engagement in youth philanthropy. This topic has come up in all three of our youth philanthropy briefs, so we’d like to expand upon it in this blog. 

Why Family Engagement is Crucial to Young Peoples’ Success in Youth Philanthropy

Prior to COVID-19, young people and program directors expressed concern that parents and guardians don’t always understand what a youth philanthropy program is or does. Whether there is a lack of understanding as to what philanthropy is, or why it is important for young people to engage in philanthropy, we’ve heard year after year that engaging adults in their children’s youth philanthropy experience has been a challenge. It may be even more important to deeply engage parents and guardians when programming happens in a virtual or hybrid setting.

For example, as we conducted interviews for our first brief, “From Beneficiary to Active Agent,” a youth philanthropist from Pittsburgh explained that at home her family does not speak English and there is no translatable word for philanthropy. In addition, she explained, “I think it’s really hard to educate people about what you do as a funder…Whenever you’re telling people that, they’re like ‘Oh charity,’ but it’s not charity.” Another member of the same program expressed frustration that some of their high school peers, as well, would assume that they were giving away their own money and they didn’t understand that philanthropy was more than an after school or summer activityit was their job. 

In our second brief, a case study on Youth for Community Improvement, the Greater Worcester Community Foundation’s youth philanthropy program, we asked their program director, Sarah Shugrue, how they engage families and explain philanthropy. She said they provide an orientation and ease both adults and young people into the philanthropy jargon by using words like ‘service’ instead of ‘philanthropy’ and ‘benefiting the community’ instead of ‘charity’ to start. Once there is a common understanding of terms, program directors can begin integrating jargon and speak more robustly about what youth philanthropy programs achieve, for the young people engaged and the broader field of philanthropy..

In our most recent report, a program director from California explained that during the past year she sent a weekly recap to parents after each meeting to encourage understanding and family discussion. She found it even more important since their program was virtual and there was no in-person opportunity to debrief challenging or triggering topics. The opportunity for family discussion, inclusion, and understanding will help support young people’s engagement in their youth philanthropy programs. 


There is a need to use accessible and clear language when it comes to youth philanthropy. Program directors may find that the best way to engage parents and guardians is through an orientation, weekly emails or notes, or perhaps hold family office hours to provide a space for discussion, learning, and debrief. Program directors and supporters should be aware of language barriers, different understandings of the term “philanthropy” and other related jargon, and that topics and discussions may be triggering for both young people and adults. Youth philanthropy can operate at its best when parents and guardians are informed and engaged in the work their youth are doing as well.

Sheryl Seller is the assistant director at the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis University

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.