Teaching teens the business of philanthropy

Raising money is easy, choosing recipients hard

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

Eager to grant a range of modest awards to several local nonprofits from a cache of funds raised by their Future Philanthropist Program are six fresh-faced high school juniors, awaiting their turn to present their proposal pitch at the regular meeting of the Grants and Programs Committee at the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.

Since September these teens, as part of a larger cohort of 20 like minded juniors from Oak Park and River Forest High School, Fenwick High School and Trinity High School, have been learning the art and science of philanthropy in a leadership skill building program that began in 2010.  In their second year of the two year program, as seniors they will run a capital campaign to raise $25,000 for the crop of next year's juniors.

At the end of April, the culmination of their hands on learning will be a capstone event at the 19th Century Charitable Organization, where these Future Philanthropist's will present a "live" check, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, to a selection of nonprofits they have spent the last year championing, thanks to Richard M. King, a community foundation board member and the program's founder.

From its inception, King's aim has been to put high school juniors, then seniors, in key philanthropic decision making roles where they could support worthwhile community projects in Oak Park and River Forest.  

"The beauty of this, is that we (King and his six adult mentors) give them an opportunity to work as a grant making group to build consensus, while figuring out how to tolerate and negotiate with each other to ultimately gain consensus," King says.  "Those are adult themes we hope to instill in them, using the business of philanthropy as the medium."

Making the grade

Last September, King says, a new group of 20 high school juniors were selected to join the rising seniors.  The kids, he says, make a two year volunteer commitment to do this hands-on classroom learning, in groups with each other, supported by community volunteers interested in sharing their knowledge and know-how about the world of philanthropic giving.

OPRF junior Carter Rayburn says that he became involved because he wanted to learn how to properly "give away" money to a worthy cause, while learning about the field of philanthropy. 

"I enjoyed the process of what we had to do to get here, where we were actually presenting our grant proposals to a committee who would decide who gets what," he said.  "Narrowing our options down, and deciding which nonprofit programs we were going to grant our money to, and why, though, wasn't easy."

At times, it was feisty, says Joe Kassel, another OPRF junior who presented that evening to the committee.  He was promoting two local programs, although during the presentation, the teens also explained why they chose not to grant dollars to some at all.

"There were some disagreements, but we ended up making decisions that we all thought were right," he says.

Even so, Jana Barber a junior at OPRF, says it wasn't "easy to not want to give every organization exactly what they wanted."  King says that at the beginning of each session he asks the juniors if $25,000 is a lot of money.  After undergoing the grant making process, they understand it is not.

"In our 2-year program, the kids gain an understanding that granting money by request is different than just giving money away," says King, president of Kittleman, an executive search firm for nonprofit organizations.  "It's purposeful, very specific, very focused and thoroughly analyzed in terms of what, or how they want to make a decision." 

Meanwhile, supporting this year's program is his stable of six adult mentors, some of whom, such as Joe Smith, have been volunteers since the start.

"I have had the pleasure of working with two cohorts now, and the single biggest thing I have learned is that if you give young people the opportunity to be responsible, they will grab the responsibility," Smith says.  "This year, I have been working with this extraordinary group of seniors who have raised an extraordinary amount of money toward this year's grant making process. So because of their efforts, once again there is a future destiny here."

Laura Devitt of OPRF is one of 13 seniors who has been doing that.   "I think in our fundraising campaign to support next year's effort, we are up to about $16,000 right now."   

In that moment, as any earnest capital campaigner would do, Devitt grabbed the chance to plug their end-of-the-program Shop and Share fundraiser, April 13-19, at Marion Street Cheese Market.  During that week, she says, 10 percent of the proceeds from a patrons food, alcohol and merchandise purchases will be donated to the Future Philanthropists' fund.

Fenwick High School senior Jack Van Ermen, says the process of fundraising wasn't as difficult for him, as was deciding who should receive a grant when he was a junior grant maker in 2013.

"Giving it is a lot harder because you see the great opportunities out there that need help, but we had only so much to give," says Van Ermen, who plans to pursue a business degree in college in the fall. 

 "And the nonprofits are asking for more than you have.  So, just kind of being able to decide who you feel has got a stronger potential to help out better, is what this is all about."

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