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Church youth become philanthropists

Teenagers at an Episcopal church in a wealthy Connecticut town learn about giving by making grants to local organizations.

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

February 12, 2013

Church youth are often called upon to help others -- they may go on mission trips, serve meals at a community kitchen or tutor other students.

But at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, Conn., such direct service has been augmented by a different kind of generosity: philanthropy.

Thirteen teens are learning to run a small foundation -- the St. Mark’s Youth Philanthropy Guild -- and in the process are living out the Christian mission of serving the poor. Their discussions about how to disburse the funds are not just practical, but also lead to deeper conversations about what it means to really follow Jesus -- with their hearts and with their money -- and about the role of the church in society

By setting up a real-world philanthropy and being led through the process of asset allocation, these high schoolers are asking questions about what it means to be a Christian, said businessman Gary B. Ward, one of the adult leaders of the group.

“One of the greatest kicks in business is watching people respond when you give them responsibility; they just flower,” Ward said. “Here, you’re watching the Lord’s work in action, and these young people are maturing in terms of judgment and becoming bigger people in many different ways. It’s my small mission for the church.”

The church has entrusted these high schoolers with $5,000 from a fundraiser and has asked them to grant the money to places where it will most help those in need. Over a period of months, they will craft a mission statement, devise a marketing plan, request proposals and then decide which to fund. The grants will be awarded in the spring.

The teens want to participate in the guild out of a sense of altruism, as well as a sense of responsibility.

“We have so much that we are given,” said Kristin Davis, a 10th-grade student at New Canaan High School and a member of the church.

 

Questions to consider:

  • The philanthropy guild is a creative response to a community’s giftedness. What might you do that builds on your unique context?
  • This is an effort to “overinvest in the young” by providing them with education, opportunity and responsibility. How does your institution invest in the young?
  • Part of what makes the program work is Gary Ward’s willingness to mentor the youth. Can you identify people who could serve as mentors, perhaps in surprising ways?
  • The program capitalizes on leadership potential. How do you recognize and foster leadership potential in your constituents?

“We just want to give back to the community and to God and follow his path for us and what he wants us to do as Christians. St. Mark’s is such a welcoming community, and the youth leaders make it a lot of fun. It’s informative and collaborative.”

Due diligence

On a recent Thursday evening, about half the members of the St. Mark’s Youth Philanthropy Guild sat down with Acting Director of Youth Ministries Cyra Borsy to brainstorm ideas for getting the word out to the community that they are accepting proposals for grants of up to $2,500.

Two members of the group rushed in from squash practice; another was fitting in the meeting around dance class.

As they ate pizza and the choir practiced in the background, the group kicked around a marketing plan: How should they get the word out through social media, newspapers, fliers, church announcements and the local television station?

The group has also been working on its mission statement and devising a way to vet organizations to be sure the donations will have an impact.

“We should ask the organizations to give financial statements,” suggested Christian Walsh, a senior at St. Luke’s, a private school in New Canaan. “What percentage goes toward their overhead? We should get recommendations; it confirms that they’re trustworthy.”

Jake Hamill, also a senior at St. Luke’s, said he liked the idea of visiting an organization before donating money. “I think it’s a good idea to go to the site and see how the organization is in person and on paper,” Hamill said.

Borsy challenged the kids to find some organizations that are so small they may not be known. For example, the Norwalk River Rowing Association mentors young, at-risk women by introducing them to the elite sport of crew, she said.

“It gives them purpose, exercise, self-esteem,” Borsy said. “But it’s a low-income program -- they’re operating out of a trailer. They don’t know about St. Mark’s, but I know about them, so think about that for a second. Find some organizations and send an application to them.”

A meaningful challenge

The guild was the brainchild of Ward and the Rev. Joshua Hill, the former youth minister at St. Mark’s, now chaplain at the Episcopal School of Knoxville in Tennessee.

Hill reasoned that many of these kids would find themselves in leadership positions in the church in the future, so why not start grooming them now?

“A big part of my rationale for the youth philanthropy group was that older teenagers deserve more than pancake suppers and ‘Kumbaya’ from the church,” Hill said. “They need to be challenged to live meaningfully. They need to be told they are valued, their opinions matter and they can have an impact on the work of the church.

“Given the particular economic context of our parish, it was clear to me that formation for leadership in mission involved money as much as it involved hands.”

New Canaan is a wealthy community in Connecticut with tree-lined streets and stone walls typical of a small New England town. The median price of a home is $1.2 million, and many residents work on Wall Street or in the financial services industry.

Ward, a retired hedge fund manager, wanted to expose the teens to the real world, and to challenge them to think about how to put their values into action.

“The project is closely aligned with the Christian values of assistance to the needy,” Ward said. “It’s not heavy-handed but merely taking our youth and trying to make the love of Christ part of their daily life.”

Ward is the perfect mentor to the group, Hill said. He has a Wharton degree, love for the church and a connection with teenagers.

Hill recruited the first participants by telling them how great the experience would look on a college application.

“That was the sales pitch, but the truth is that most young people jump at the chance to be trusted with something that really matters,” Hill said. “They could sense a chance to be recognized as mature young adults, and they went for it.”

At the end of the process, last year’s group of teens considered seven applications and ultimately gave grants to five organizations focused on helping children and families.

They included Pura Vida, a local faith-based charity for children in need throughout the world, and Breakthrough Options for Families Inc., an agency in nearby Norwalk, Conn., serving single, low-income parents.

“It is very moving to have high school students help with and fund our mission,” said Sharon Knechtle, director of Pura Vida, which in 2012 sent 200,000 specially formulated packaged meals to children in Haiti.

The St. Mark’s group also funded a summer reading program at the New Canaan library -- a decision that raised some questions for the youth.

While some in the group wanted to donate money to the library for new software to expand its children’s summer reading program, one of the members was against it because he believed the library was damaging local video stores. In the end, the students persuaded the teen that the library deserved the grant.

Grappling with big questions is part of the purpose of the project, Ward said. By deciding where to give money, the youth have to think about what it means to be generous and what it means to do philanthropy as Christians, for the sake of the gospel.

Ward agreed.

“Life is a series of trade-offs,” Ward said. “I encourage the kids to argue it out. I try to get the kids to expand their vision into ethics and morality when making grants.”

A model for youth philanthropy

Hill and Ward were initially inspired by the New Canaan Community Foundation’s Young Philanthropists Fund, a six-year-old program that will give away $12,000 this year.

Cynthia Gorey, the executive director of the New Canaan Community Foundation, said that youth philanthropy programs across the country have grown out of schools and churches. They tend to attract kids who understand the responsibility of giving back, whether because of their own families’ wealth or because they appreciate the unmet needs of people around them.

“This is a complement to the direct service that kids have been participating in all along,” Gorey said. “Families are seeing the value of giving financial support as well.”

When a 14- or 15-year-old first signs on, he or she may not know much about the role of the nonprofit sector of the economy, Gorey said. The first job is to understand that the economy is broken down into three segments: for-profit business; government, which provides assistance through programs like food stamps; and then the nonprofit segment, which picks up the slack.

“A nonprofit can be everything from Harvard down to a food pantry,” Gorey said. Then kids learn about the range of funders, from medically based groups to foundations that focus on issues such as education and hunger to corporate philanthropy.

Gorey said she enjoys teaching about the life cycle of a nonprofit -- raising the money, identifying worthy causes and making good choices about whom to fund. At the end of the process, kids feel like they have made intelligent, informed choices and enjoy seeing people helped by their work.

Though the New Canaan Community Foundation program served as an inspiration, both Hill and Ward wanted to create their own program at St. Mark’s with an emphasis on Christian values -- a model that could be replicated in other congregations.

For Davis, the 10th-grader, the philanthropy guild is a way to live out her faith.

“We want to help other people and do good for the world,” she said. “That’s what Christianity is all about.”