Youth Philanthropy, Trust Building, and Sharing Power - Exponent Philanthropy
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Youth Philanthropy, Trust Building, and Sharing Power

Despite the growing number of youth philanthropy programs in the United States, a 2002 survey found that “only 48 percent of adults believe it is important to seek young people’s opinions when making decisions that affect them.” As Katie Richards-Schuster, a professor at University of Michigan stated in 2012, “In general, American society, through its policies and practices, tends to focus on the construction of youth as vulnerable and at risk at best, and as problems at worst.” However, we know that through youth philanthropy programs where young people are given decision-making power as well as provided with mentorship, communities thrive.

For our recent publication, “From Beneficiary to Active Agent: How Youth-Led Grantmaking Benefits Young People, Their Communities, and the Philanthropic Sector,” we interviewed young people and adult supporters involved in highly democratic and inclusive youth philanthropy. A common theme from the interviews was the vital nature of trust and power sharing between young people and adults. We know that adults who oversee youth philanthropy programs should cede control to young people and allow them to make decisions that will help their communities—but there are barriers to this. A few common perceptions shared by young people were:

  • People think that because we are young we don’t know what our communities need.
  • People think that because we are young we can’t create change.
  • People think that because we are young they have to make decisions for us.
  • People think that because we are young we won’t work well together.

Students cited this perceived lack of trust and hesitancy to share power as a significant barrier that prevents young people from joining youth philanthropy programs. According to students, other obstacles they noted are lack of knowledge about a program’s existence, lack of transportation, and lack of time. Young people may also think that they aren’t qualified, that they won’t be treated fairly, or that their opinions won’t be respected. These types of exclusionary perceptions are nothing new in philanthropy—a field inherently rooted in structural and systemic inequalities and power imbalances.Thus, it is even more vital that adults acknowledge this context and actively work to change it.

In successful youth philanthropy programs, adults recognize that young people understand their communities and are capable of making decisions that help their communities thrive.

In youth philanthropy programs that effectively share decision-making with youth participants, young people report having highly positive experiences. Young people we interviewed talked about the variety of skills their programs helped them develop, such as confidence and public speaking, team management, time management, writing, and, of course, grantmaking. They also explained that they were able to prove to adults that they could learn about their communities, make decisions democratically, and learn on their own while also knowing when to ask for help.

The programs that best support young people practice highly inclusive and democratic methods internally. Many of the programs cover costs such as travel expenses and provide hourly stipends for youth participants. Some successful programs also provide young people with counseling and mentor services, access to computers, food, and other assistance.

Additionally, the adult supporters of each program acknowledge the young people’s power and intelligence, and support youth choices about which organizations to reach out to and fund, and the process by which youth make decisions. They advocate for young people by defending their decisions to foundation boards, foundation staff members, or the community. While these adults teach young people about the field of philanthropy—how to create requests for proposals, conduct site visits, and other necessary skills— most importantly, they also know when to step aside and let the young people make decisions, make mistakes, and learn on their own.

The program directors of successful youth philanthropy programs also acknowledge the need for diversity in their programs. For some programs, this means diversity of race or ethnicity, for others socioeconomic status, and still for others ensuring that high school freshman have just as much of a voice as high school seniors. The program directors with whom we spoke purposefully create outreach programs and application processes to ensure that diverse voices are represented in their programs. They build trust with the participants so that the young people are comfortable asking for help as needed, but have the space to work independently.

It is through trust and power sharing between adults and young people, that youth philanthropy programs yield such outstanding results. As one young person with whom we spoke stated, “We need to be the voice and symbol of youth in the community. We can’t let adults make all the decisions for us.” These findings speak to the trajectory and needs of the broader youth giving movement, one that is growing and diversifying the field of philanthropy. I encourage you to explore more findings in the report to learn about how youth-led grantmaking not only benefits the youth involved and philanthropic sector, but also the communities in which they work. In the Appendix of the brief, you’ll find best practices and tips for you—whether you’re an adult supporter, funder, nonprofit, a youth philanthropist, or an aspiring one!

Sheryl Seller is Assistant Director at the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis University. Her work focuses on youth philanthropy and immigrant integration. Sheryl is also a member of the Social Justice Funders Network Planning Committee. She received her MA and BA in Global Studies from Brandeis University.

This post originally appeared on, a hub to inspire, connect, and inform youth grantmaking.

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