At the recent Council on Foundations Family Foundation Conference in San Diego, a new book by a father and teenage daughter sold out in minutes. In The Power of Half (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books 2010), Kevin and Hannah Salwen share the engrossing story of their family’s decision to sell their spacious Atlanta home, move to one half the size, and use the proceeds to make grants supporting hunger projects in Africa.
Judging by the conference attendees’ interest in this family’s story, as well as those of other presenters and sessions addressing next generation issues, it’s clear that involving young people remains a top priority for family philanthropists. This is a two-pronged issue. First is how to raise children who are personally philanthropic, who are motivated to give of their time, talent and treasure. Second is how to encourage and prepare the next generation to become involved in the grantmaking of the family’s foundation or fund. Focusing on the latter without the former just teaches kids that philanthropy is about giving away other people’s money.
Many families feel they have the first part covered but are seeking more ideas for doing an effective job of engaging young people in the family’s formal giving vehicle. Next generation boards have become common in recent years, usually providing a pool of funds from which young people can recommend grants to the main board. If a foundation has staff, teaching the next generation is cropping up in more of their job descriptions. There’s also a trend toward involving children at much younger ages than in the past.
The Weaver Foundation in Greensboro, NC, is a good example. Mike Weaver, along with his children and their spouses, began to introduce the youngest family members to grantmaking in 2007 at a foundation retreat. The eight children, then ages 6 to 11, worked with a former pre-school teacher/facilitator to brainstorm about their community and then draw a mural including Greensboro’s businesses, schools, fire department, parks, the animal shelter, and other places. They discussed who in their town needed help and the types of organizations that provide it. Finally, they settled on three interest areas—animals, children and the environment—toward which to direct their $100 grantmaking pot from the foundation. The children then joined the adult board meeting to report on what they decided. The adults were surprised and impressed with how well their young children articulated their first-time grantmaking experience. One quick-thinking boy was so enthusiastic that he asked Weaver to match the foundation’s $100 with a personal contribution so they’d have $200 to give.
After the retreat, Foundation President Richard Moore selected some of the foundation’s current grantees who fell in the three focus areas. He took the children to visit the organizations and personally present checks on behalf of the Weaver Foundation. Now the kids engage in grantmaking at every retreat, and Moore is shifting to a less directed process where he will take them on site visits first and then they will pick the organizations themselves. He’s also organized service projects for them such as planting trees in a park, and he sent them all piggy banks. “Whatever money they put in, the foundation will match it,” Moore explains.
Not all executive directors are enthusiastic about working with the younger set. Challenges include parents who aren’t sufficiently supportive, and the difficulty of scheduling service projects or site visits around sports and other activities. While Moore has experienced the scheduling problem, especially as some Weaver children entered the busy teenage years, he views this work as a logical part of his job. “I don’t see it as a lot different than the role I play with the parents, helping them decide how to accomplish what they want to with grantmaking.”
Some foundations are inclined to wait until kids are teenagers to start involving them in the foundation, but Moore stresses that younger kids “are much more perceptive than we think they are.” That sentiment is echoed by Weaver’s son-in-law Greg Shutter, the foundation’s board chair, whose kids are ages 9 to 15. He recalls one site visit to a day center for the homeless. While he and Moore stayed in the background, the children sat in a circle with a few of the center’s clients who are also volunteers, and had a lively and candid conversation together.
“The clients talked to them like adults, and the kids had enough innocence to be blunt,” Shutter recalls. For example, one child was curious to know what it is like to live under a bridge. His oldest son Michael was particularly affected by meeting another boy about his age who came to the shelter that day with his mother seeking help. “They had just become homeless,” but they didn’t fit the mental image his kids had. “They were dressed like us,” Greg says.
The Weaver Foundation has one big advantage in that all the children live in the same town. For foundations working with kids scattered geographically, use of technology becomes important. The children of the Frieda C. Fox Foundation, from elementary to high school ages, conduct the work of their junior board using Skype, Google Docs, Facebook and other social networking tools to stay connected. They make short videos of their site visits to share with their fellow board members via the Internet and have their own page on the foundation’s website where you can read the young people’s tips on running a junior board (originally published by the Association of Small Foundations). Executive Director Dana Marcus is an enthusiastic supporter of the junior board’s work, but lets the young people take the leadership.
The Fox family’s junior board members are a good example of what young people can bring to the board table. Their ease with technology means they have valuable skills to share with their elders.
If you would like to involve young children in your foundation or fund, here are some other resources to help you get started: