As a young person, I advocated for every cause I cared about. I’d post articles on the wall of our school cafeteria about almost every issue (I was passionate about them all) and fundraise (and eventually recruit an entire team) for our local AIDS walk. I even was a very early volunteer in creating a nonprofit named MotherHouse. Through my work with that nonprofit, I became engaged in youth philanthropy. I applied for a project grant from my local community foundation’s youth philanthropy committee on behalf of my school volunteer club (leveraging lots of volunteers and great donations too!). With lots of great donations and helpful volunteers, we were able to use the grant to redo an entire room at MotherHouse. Then, I actually joined my local community foundation, Community Foundation of Northern Illinois’s (CFNIL) In Youth We Trust Youth Advisory Council, because I had seen the deep impact that was possible through youth philanthropy.
We put out a call for application, received applications for grants, invited nonprofits in for interviews, deliberated, and then presented our decisions to the board of directors. I presented to the board of CFNIL a few times, and it certainly made me nervous. They were really nice people – I remember a community member I knew well who always said hello or waved. He made a point to make us comfortable, which I appreciate to this day. The CFNIL staff was always there at these morning meetings to help us present, answer questions, and then leave for school! Since these board meeting experiences many years ago, I have had jobs across the field at foundations (big and small) and joined boards myself. I have always come back to the things I learned as a youth grantmaker:
- Be familiar with your grantmaking – for example your application, your grants you are putting forward, and the grants you are suggesting not be funded – and the documents you gave the board. Bring a copy for yourself! (Back when I was young, it was always paper, but that still helps a lot as tech errors, do happen!). And make sure to have your final grant recommendations easily accessible.
- Prepare yourself to discuss how you made grant decisions and why you decided what you did as a group. Boards want to know about your thoughtful decision-making. Make sure you know what part you will explain, and your co-presenters will too—you want to make sure they can cover things too (and you remember who is doing what).
- Dress well and practice. You don’t have to talk as fast as a race car drives! You can practice standing and talking to a group or however your meeting will happen with your parents or a mirror or friends. Remember, you are representing all the youth engaged in your program and meeting with community professionals (or other volunteers giving their time to serve on the board) to convince them to approve your grants. You’re representing your and your peers’ hard work and deliberation, and also that of the grantees.
- It’s okay to pause and think about answers to questions! Taking time to give a thoughtful answer, rather than the first answer that comes to mind, will be appreciated by the board. (And if you don’t know, you can always say that you aren’t sure and will check a grant application or get back to someone.)
- Leverage the context. You likely have amazing staff and advisors (like I did) who have made a great opportunity for you and for the board to learn about your work. If you have questions or something you want to ask or share, your great staff and advisors can help you prepare that question or opportunity too.
- Don’t forget to thank the board! You have an amazing opportunity (after all, it’s how I got engaged in the field I now work in everyday) and they are approving making it all possible. You want this opportunity for other youth in the future.
I was really lucky, as we had amazing staff support from the foundation – our advisors, our staff program officer, and even the foundation’s president. Fast forward to today…what did I learn and why would I suggest you have youth speak with your board to learn these skills? For me, adults, I feel like there is no better way to get your board ignited about the work your youth are doing and to give youth the opportunity to learn all of these skills, while also giving them the opportunity to defend their own grant decisions as well.
In my jobs at community foundations across the country (big and small! older and younger!), it isn’t common that newer staff get to present to the board—let alone even be in the room or near it. It’s something that makes a lot of senior staff really nervous. You can always tell when it is board meeting day by the energy. As a young person, volunteer for this opportunity! You can learn great skills by trying out this opportunity like public speaking, defending your own decisions, and speaking up for your peers and nonprofits you care about. The biggest skill I have today is one you learn by doing this—I am comfortable in that room—knowing that the board is made up of people who want you to succeed and who are invested in their community (or the topic you fund) too. And when you get a job – regardless of the field – someday you will present to decision-makers, and you will know how!
June 15, 2016
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