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The New Faces of Philanthropy

Pass on a philanthropic legacy to your youngest family members.

Most parents will say their children are not inherently wired to share, yet generous young philanthropists seem to be more prevalent than ever. Twelve-year-old Olivia Bouler has raised $200,000 by giving her bird drawings to those who donate to wildlife recovery efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. At 5 years old, Phoebe Russell raised more than $3,700 for the San Francisco Food Bank by collecting cans. A year later, Tyson Foods caught wind of her efforts and donated more than 30,000 pounds of chicken to the food bank.

Cases of young philanthropists in action are not rare, according to, an organization that encourages young people to volunteer and effect social change. In its 2012 Index on Young People and Volunteering, it found 54.2% of young people ages 13 to 22 volunteered in 2011.

As parents and grandparents, you can help ensure your children find themselves in this group. Foster a spirit of philanthropy with these tips from Northern Trust’s Marguerite Griffin, national director of philanthropic services.

Let Your Children Decide Where to Volunteer

“They need to have an opportunity to identify their own interests,” Griffin says. “Sometimes the friction is when families say, ‘This is what our family does.’ Yet if children aren’t given opportunities to express their ideas from the beginning, you may lose them.”


Top 5 Issues for Young Philanthropists

  1. Animal welfare
  2. Hunger
  3. Homelessness
  4. The environment
  5. The economy

 Source: 2012 Index on Young People and Volunteering


Two of her clients brought their three children to meet with her and explore their interests and values. The parents weren’t in the room for the discussion, which “made a big difference in what the family ended up funding,” Griffin says.

To start, she recommends exposing children to activities loosely connected to social causes – nature photography, for example – and seeing what resonates with them. Once they demonstrate an interest, nurture it.

If your children’s school offers volunteer opportunities, consider expanding on the initiatives that capture their interest.

 Encourage Children to Explore Different Philanthropic Causes

You may support your child’s interest in, say, protecting beluga whales by organizing trips to the aquarium or buying books and videos. But his or her philanthropic interests likely will evolve along with his or her tastes in clothes and music.

It’s all about juggling commitment with imagination. “It’s similar to learning to play the piano, where there’s value in encouraging some discipline,” Griffin says. “Maybe you spend a month exploring a cause, and you learn everything you can. Your child may decide to stick with it for another month, but the idea is to keep learning and exploring different interests, maybe even in bite-sized chunks.”

Set a Philanthropic Example

If your children observe that you find giving, serving and volunteering to be worthy pursuits, they’ll likely be intrigued. Speeches about charity, on the other hand, generally fall flat. “Young people are motivated by acts,” says Griffin. “Children need to see their parents’ examples, and that will motivate them more than telling them that given their fortunate circumstances, they have a responsibility to give back.”

Consider Group Giving

Because members of the youngest generation generally prefer group activities, they’re likely to be attracted to philanthropic endeavors that include a collaborative component. Steering them toward either a local youth charity or volunteering to execute a fundraiser could be the ticket to greater social awareness and engagement. Group giving can also get your children more excited about a cause because they’re able to feed off the passion of fellow donors.

“Young people see the multifaceted value of volunteering and philanthropy,” Griffin says. “Kids are savvy and see the return on their investment that comes in the form of meeting new people [in their fellow volunteers].”

Enable the “Charitable Entrepreneur”

 Rather than give to large brand-name charities, today’s young philanthropists are more likely to think creatively about entrepreneurial solutions to social issues and give to initiatives following that blueprint.

“Young people are generally much more grassroots than their parents or grandparents and may not have the same commitment to large organizations or institutions,” Griffin says. “They are often more interested in looking through the infrastructures to the underlying problem itself. They usually move toward finding solutions much more quickly and with more transparency.”

Appeal to this value by investigating cutting-edge solutions to traditional problems and seeing which ideas capture your children’s imagination. For example, the annual Teens for Jeans campaign encourages young people to bring gently used jeans to their local Aéropostale store, and the retailer will donate them to a nearby homeless shelter. Donors receive a coupon for 25% off a new pair of Aéropostale jeans in return.

Address Their Capacity to Give

For children in high net worth families, understanding their financial capacity to give is critical. While these money conversations may be somewhat uncomfortable for some parents and grandparents, “children need to understand the impact they can make,” Griffin says.

She recommends giving children discretion over a relatively large sum of charitable dollars – perhaps a few thousand dollars – so they can better prepare for a time in which they may direct much larger amounts toward philanthropic causes.

“Arguably, one thinks differently about the impact of a gift when the gift is $2,000 rather than $50. And your children need to be thinking on that level,” Griffin says. Your children and grandchildren have the potential to create meaningful, positive change in our world – but you can play an important role, too. “Our goal is to give them opportunities to shape how things are done,” Griffin says.

Serving via Social Media

Let’s face it: Any activity that can be performed via an online social network is probably more appealing to your children than one that can’t.

Not only are children drawn to engaging social issues online, but causes that go viral also testify to the power of collective action. For example, in March 2012, a video protesting an African warlord was viewed 100 million times in six days. Later in the year, 32,000-plus donors contributed a total of more than $700,000 to fund a bullied New York school-bus monitor’s vacation.

Social media has caused a ripple effect that’s broadened the scope of philanthropy among today’s youth, says Northern Trust’s Marguerite Griffin. “Twenty-five years ago, you set up a lemonade stand and your focus was around the block,” she says. “Now it’s around the world.”

Your children probably don’t need any instruction about using social media. They’re more likely to benefit from your assistance in identifying and vetting the online causes that interest them and have the greatest potential impact. Be careful not to oversteer your children toward the causes you support. Your goal should be to help them think critically, not think for them.


Reprinted with permission. The views, opinions and investment information expressed are those of the individuals noted herein, do not necessarily represent the views of Northern Trust or any other person in the Northern Trust organization and are subject to change based on market or other conditions. The material is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice or a recommendation to buy or sell a security. Northern Trust disclaims any responsibility to update such views.


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