Teach Children Nonprofit Literacy

As a community and as parents, we’re passionate about teaching our children such values as charity and loving kindness. Today it’s practically de rigueur for Jewish 13-year-olds to take on a charity project as part of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah — and among American teenagers as a whole, volunteerism has gone way up.

While these developments are cause for celebration, I can’t help but notice a crucial missing link: “Generation Y” receives little or no education in how nonprofit charities actually work — why and how they get started, how they’re funded and regulated, how spending decisions get made and how they fit within the bigger picture of broader movements for social change. Yet, in a vacuum of information these same young people are constantly being called to volunteer their time and money to support nonprofits.

What we need, in tandem with ongoing community-service youth activities, is a broad-based movement in Jewish education to teach “nonprofit literacy.” We need to introduce our youth to the nonprofit sector as a whole, enabling them to discover the scope and impact of this field and to understand what makes a good nonprofit or social service program — because this is where the action is, in more ways than one. Learning more about nonprofits will help prepare young people for future roles as donors supporting programs and institutions that are vital to our community.

If they were motivated toward tikkun olam when they were young, the parents and grandparents of today’s Jewish teens had far fewer choices to make. They probably did some community service through their day school or synagogue and donated to their Jewish federation. Outlets for their good works were more familiar, closer to home.

In fact, there were only 32,000 registered 501(c)3 charitable nonprofits operating in the United States in 1950; today there are more than 910,000, an astonishing 28-fold increase, and the number is growing rapidly. How can we best equip our youth to maneuver in this vast and complex new world of philanthropy?

A powerful model already exists for educating youth in philanthropy in ways that go beyond one-day activities such as car washes, bake sales and holiday visits to a home for the aged. Across the country, community foundations and some family foundations are providing teenagers with a chance to practice philanthropy as hands-on grant makers who come together as a group, study community needs, go on site visits, weigh the issues and make real-life funding decisions. In the process, they learn valuable lessons in leadership, collaboration, research, advocacy and creative problem solving.

Here in Los Angeles, 15 Jewish teenagers recently participated in our Community Youth Foundation, working together for a period of two months and distributing $10,000 in grants to organizations both Jewish and secular. Other organizations spearheading such programs include the Michigan Community Foundations, Colorado’s Rose Community Foundation, San Diego’s Community Youth Foundation and Greater Washington’s Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, more than 500 youth-led grantmaking groups now exist in the United States.

There is another significant potential dividend to be realized down the road through instilling in today’s youth a heightened understanding of philanthropy. By promoting greater awareness, we might also be opening up possibilities for our teenagers to think about giving to the community not just as an extracurricular activity but also as a career.

Exposure to the nonprofit realm also opens the door to careers in the fastest growing sector of our economy. According to most recent data, the number of Americans employed in the nonprofit sector has doubled in the last 25 years — at 12.5 million, they now make up 9% of the total work force. Between 1990 and 2004, nonprofit employment grew by an average 2.4% per year, significantly faster than the 1.3% average annual growth rate for overall employment during the same period.

Public health, education and human services used to be the domain of government. In fact, when I received my doctoral degree in social policy in 1975, I fully expected to have a career at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or with the War on Poverty or with any number of government social welfare programs addressing urgent community needs.

But three decades on, as the government approach to social welfare has shifted from providing services to contracting them out, I find myself, like many of my colleagues, working within the nonprofit world to pursue the same goals. I have come to recognize that the social safety net, frayed by years of government cutbacks, is now in our hands to repair. For philanthropically inclined teenagers, this presents both a challenge and a tremendous opportunity.

The coming decades will see the largest transfer of wealth in our nation’s history. Some $8 trillion will be passed from Americans who are more than 50 to their children and grandchildren. We must give Jewish youth the tools to ask the right kinds of questions to become effective stewards of wealth.

Susan Grinel is director of the Family Foundation Center, a philanthropic consulting service of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.


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