Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio
Church youth become philanthropists
Teenagers at an Episcopal church in a wealthy Connecticut town learn about giving by making grants to local organizations.
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.”
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.