Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Amy Neugebauer, Executive Director and Founder, The Giving Square, 5237 River Road, Suite #244, Bethesda, MD 20816. E-mail: email@example.com
Children Are Undiscovered Community Assets
The Giving Square partners with schools and organizations to develop children’s philanthropic skills, identities, and tools. The Giving Square’s flagship program, the Kids for Kids Fund, engages third to fifth graders in an experiential philanthropic journey focused on empathy, humility, and impact.
“People always tell us young people will save the world, but there is simply not enough time to wait,” warns Greta Thunberg. There is indeed a strong sentiment that “children are the future.” People write songs about it, print bumper stickers, and use the phrase in speeches. Yet, though they say the words, most do not act as if they believe them to be true. If they did, they would value children as the ultimate community owners.
The contributors to this issue of the eJournal of Public Affairs are all exploring the concept of “community ownership,” of people taking collective responsibility for improving others’ lives. This article considers why kids should be treated as community owners, how adults get in the way, and how we can all nurture children to be agents of change—now, just as Greta urges us to do.
Children Are Ideal Community Owners
We at The Giving Square know that children can be community owners because we have seen it. Through our Kids for Kids Fund program, we have engaged hundreds of third to fifth graders in an experiential curriculum designed to deepen their civic and philanthropic dispositions, skills, and behaviors. The program helps kids develop an empathetic and expanded understanding of the needs of their respective communities. We explore where life is not fair and help them see their responsibility in making it more fair for others. Finally, we assign them the responsibility of giving away $1,000 to a local child-serving organization in their community (think of this as a “kid-advised fund,” or KAF).
Children participating in the Kids for Kids Fund program have opened up about their experiences being immigrants, battling cancer, having siblings with special needs, witnessing parents battling depression, losing family members, and dealing with racism. Throughout the program, children talk about hard stuff because they have seen it and experienced it—and want to do something about it.
Our program reframes how kids can help. Specially, we validate their capacity to work together to make important decisions about how to allocate resources in their communities through the KAF deliberation process. We also emphasize the many different ways kids can take responsibility for helping others in their families, neighborhoods, and communities. We encourage them to think about the myriad ways they can be philanthropic every day, validating such community-ownership efforts as,
- “I taught my brother how to read”;
- “I sit with my mom when she is sad”; and,
- “I helped the old lady pick up the tomatoes she dropped at the store.”
Though larger child-led fundraising activities or canned food drives attract attention, it is also the everyday acts of community ownership that add up to significant impacts.
Ninety-four percent of participants who have completed the Kids for Kids Fund program have reported wanting to help others more, and 88.24% have reported seeing themselves as philanthropists. Before participating in the program, less than 50% of children polled reported feeling important in their communities compared to 100% after the program.
The Kids for Kids Fund works for a few reasons. First, it is evidence-based, built on research related to service, empathy, giving, character development, and child development. Second, we constantly test and evolve our curriculum and practices in order to adapt to rapidly changing social challenges in our communities and to maximize impact. Finally, our program meets kids where they are—in relation to both their social concerns and their philanthropic capacities. It works because children are capable of and interested in being community owners. We unleash power; we do not generate it.
Adults Get in the Way
In order to engage kids more broadly as community owners, adults need to break their own thinking and practices about how best to engage kids in giving. Here are a few of the patterns adults need to break:
- Treating kids as future contributors. Foundations traditionally give kids responsibility once they are “of age.” Families give kids token roles in preparation for the future. Without considering kids to be important for who they are, children do not feel connected to acts of service.
- Using extrinsic motivation to drive kids’ engagement. When my son was very young, he came home one day motivated to make a $50 donation to a giving campaign at his school for a national nonprofit. When I asked why he had made this decision, he shared that, with a $50 donation, he would get the t-shirt. Children are often engaged as fundraisers and incentivized through prizes. Just because they go through the act of raising money does not mean that they are more likely to see themselves as community owners.
- Avoiding talking to kids about difficult things. Whether the issue is homelessness or racism, adults often avoid talking about important community and societal challenges because they want to protect their children from them. Kids are constantly receiving information about what is happening around them. If adults do not help them process what they are experiencing, they will create their own meaning.
- Letting the desire to market children become the driver of giving and service. Wanting to market kids and help them get into college sets adults up to brand their children as superheroes for superficial acts of service. By contrast, wanting to nurture the humanity of kids leads to very different activities and conversations.
How to Engage Children as Agents of Community Change
Rather than focusing on single acts of service, such as lemonade stands and canned food drives, we adults should focus on building a philanthropic disposition in children that will set them on a path of lifelong giving. We should treat kids as the community owners they are. Here is how we can do it:
- Engage kids in the art and science of philanthropy, not just kindness and “doing good.” First, start with the true definition of philanthropy: giving of oneself for the good of humanity. Make it clear that everyone can be a philanthropist, no matter one’s age or income. Explain that there are many ways to be philanthropic—for instance, doing research, speaking up for a friend or an issue, being a good listener, sharing one’s resources, helping someone do something, or teaching something new. The possibilities are endless.
- Have the hard conversations. Have real conversations about difficult topics, such as structural racism, homelessness, the pandemic. By seeing and exploring the challenges, they will be better equipped to figure out how to be helpful. If we fear the conversations, we should start with our own personal education and exploration.
- Spend time with first-person narratives. Explore issues through personal narratives in books, movies, and photos. Find ways to develop an empathetic connection to the needs and experiences of others by hearing their stories. This helps kids understand both why and how they might help.
- Expand kids’ understanding of issues through data and research. Kids will respond to facts about various challenges—hunger, homelessness, disabilities, and so on. We should not jump into solving the problems until we have done the research. This step is critical to ensuring that we fully understand the problem (i.e., causes vs. symptoms) and are actually helping.
- Introduce potential role models. Learn more about philanthropic kids such as Greta Thunberg (using her voice and brain for the good of the Earth), Mikaila Ulmer (using her writing and resources for the good of bees), Milo Cress (who used his voice to challenge a restaurant about its use of straws, triggering a national movement), or Belen Woodard (who launched “More Than Peach” to ensure that children have crayons in a variety of skin tones). Adults can be role models, too. In pre-surveys of participants in The Giving Square’s programs, most kids report that their parents are their role models. While we know this changes over time (alas), we should recognize that this is true for a time and that we should act accordingly.
- Help kids define issues that are important to them. One potential starting point is kids’ own lived experiences, that is, their own talents, interests, and obstacles that may link to larger social issues. We have seen many children withdraw once parents (or grandparents) push their own agenda about what kids should care about. Let kids explore their ideas. Do not tell them what they should care about.
Adults need the help of children. We need their authentic voices, fresh ideas, and positive thinking now. We need children to have a sense of responsibility to their communities now. We need them to feel like they matter now. Imagine how different the world would be.
If you would like to learn more about The Giving Square’s methodologies and programs, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Executive Director and Founder, The Giving Square Amy is a professional, with over 20 years in philanthropy, community development, and social change, with a vision for how to engage children as community builders. Amy Neugebauer is the Founder and Executive Director of The Giving Square. Throughout her career, Amy has worked in the fields of community building, international development, philanthropy, and social innovation. Most recently she served as Deputy to the President of Ashoka. At Ashoka Amy drove several initiatives and country expansions, including Ashoka in Japan, Korea, and Western Europe. Earlier in her career, Amy ran the College Park City-University Partnership, a community development corporation responsible for designing and implementing strategic collective impact initiatives, including a multi-million-dollar affordable housing program. She also founded an integrated youth-led community center in Estonia, which was recognized as a model for youth empowerment and community integration. Throughout her career Amy has advised a number of nonprofits and foundations globally around various programmatic and organizational challenges. Amy has a Masters in Community Planning from the University of Maryland and a Bachelors in International Relations from the University of Washington. She lives in Maryland with her husband, two kids, and COVID dog.