As a $300 billion industry, philanthropy is considered as American as apple pie. Yet, there is tremendous scope for its study and practice. What role does philanthropy play in the lives of youth and how can it impact their lives?
Alexis De Tocqueville’s comment that ‘associational democracy’ defines American society may be in peril, as recent data indicates. With growing inequality, a state of anxiety and increasing individualism, we may be facing a new era where the role of philanthropy may have to be reexamined. With growing online giving, emergence of creative models of philanthropy and more business-like thinking in the field, with ‘philanthrocapitalism’ and social impact investment growing in a big way, the future may look different for philanthropists.
What is the landscape of giving towards youth issues? A report by the Foundation Center (Scanning the Landscape of Youth Philanthropy, Washington, D.C., 2014) states there were “close to 900 grants between 2001 and 2013 awarded by over 70 community, private, family, and corporate foundations to support youth grant making programs.” The grants went to over 42 states and 14 countries, for issues from leadership development to community development. With the economic recession of 2008 disproportionately impacting the youth, who are the future of our country, this demographic has been re-discovered by popular media and some academics. The report also points out a global increased focus on youth. In the Arab Spring, there was a new discourse on the opportunity gap for youth in the 22 Arab countries, although this continues to be an important challenge for them. American foundations and philanthropists have also been working to help address this gap in a limited way. But the bigger issue, I would argue, is that of the society we live in. Without opportunities around us, philanthropy by itself can achieve little.
A book by sociologist Robert Putnam (Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Simon and Schuster, 2015) argues that the American dream is at risk because the opportunity gap between those who are poor and those who are not is at its highest. Putnam, best known for his book Bowling Alone, which warned about the dangers of decreasing associationalism and social capital, again cautions that we are not paying enough attention to the poorer kids amidst us. Putnam calls for all Americans to invest in the future of our kids, both rich and poor, through public school systems and related mechanisms that could have a disproportionate impact on how future generations perceive opportunity. This is where philanthropy can work with existing public and private initiatives to effect change.
Transferring the values of philanthropy
In our media-saturated society, there is no shortage of messages going out every day, urging us all to be more generous. Whether it is donating a dollar to a charity while buying groceries or contributing to Relay for Life on a school campus, the average American youth is hit with these messages on a daily basis.
There has also been a resurgence in the notion of educating youth about philanthropy. Programs such as Jumpstart our Youth, Penny Harvest and hundreds of other programs are teaching youth how to engage with their communities in a creative way. More-established programs such as the Peace Corps are teaching youth the value of contributing to the world, by giving them transformational experiences through service-learning. ACCESS, the largest Arab-American community development organization, based in Dearborn, Michigan, has a teen grant-making program that teaches young adults to make grants.
So, what role can philanthropy play in the lives of young Americans? Philanthropic organizations and individuals can focus on helping youth acquire skills and attitudes to help them succeed. This is truer for the socio-economically disadvantaged youth among us. Offering job-placement trainings, mentoring programs and related initiatives may be the way to go forward. The biggest contribution of philanthropy towards youth can be in terms of giving them hope and offering them constructive avenues for creating a better future for themselves and those around them.
Nonprofit practitioner Sabith Khan, Ph.D., is an Adjunct Professor at Virginia Tech, an Assistant Professor at California Lutheran University, and a writer, consultant, and public speaker. He has worked in India, UAE, and the U.S. His research focuses on nonprofit leadership, and faith-based giving in America and its transformation in a market-based economy.
This article is reprinted from Issue #4 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you don’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
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