How Do I Start a Youth Grantmaking Program to Ensure Youth Voice? What Are the Benefits of Doing so as a Funder?

Kelly Davenport Nowlin


In 2000, my family’s foundation (Surdna) established the Andrus Family Philanthropy Program to engage future generations in our family in formalized philanthropy. In addition, we created two youth programs, targeting 13-17 and 18-24 year olds, respectively (learn more here!). For years, these youth programs were designed and run by adults with expertise in the field, helping young people define what they cared about and find their identity in philanthropy. I have come across similar youth initiatives where adults get together to develop all aspects of the program, then present it to the young people to experience and implement. If the past sixteen years has taught me anything about youth philanthropy it is this: don’t take “youth” out of the development and creation of a youth philanthropy program.

As a philanthropic advisor, I was able to bring this learning to my collaboration with the Hopkinton Country Club Charitable Foundation (HCCCF). This group of volunteer board members is deeply committed to giving back to underserved youth and families in local communities, and for years has engaged teens in community service projects and fundraising events. They wanted to expand the experience for local youth, finding new ways to inspire service and philanthropic values that make a lasting impact. In our search for the right model, we sought to understand leading models for youth engagement in philanthropy and bring in the voices of youth early on in the process.

In the fall of 2015, seven students from Hopkinton High School attended a Massachusetts Youth Philanthropy conference hosted by Youth Philanthropy Connect to learn about philanthropy with other youth and local programs, mostly because their parents asked them to go. None of these teens had ever been involved in a youth philanthropy program and didn’t really have a clear definition of what the word philanthropy even meant. While their families had “given back” to the community for years, these young people were still curious about what philanthropy was all about. Fast forward a couple of months later, and these seven teenagers – through their own volition – would become the HCCCF’s first Youth Philanthropy Leadership Committee.

With the young leaders on board, we formalized a partnership with The Foundation for MetroWest, a local community foundation that has run a successful Youth in Philanthropy (YIP) program for over twenty years, engaging over 1,000 youth and making over $1,000,000 in grants. While The Foundation for MetroWest already has a model, they were very open to the ideas of the Hopkinton Youth Philanthropy Leadership Committee, despite their years of experience in this space.  The students were given a sample YIP curriculum and had the opportunity to share their feedback and ask questions during an in-person meeting. The conversation made clear that young people want to personally identify with philanthropy in ways that speak to them. Some are drawn to grantmaking, others to nonprofit management and fundraising, and others to civic engagement. Originally, the adult leaders from both organizations were going to eliminate the portion on fundraising, since we believed that the students already did a lot of that for school programs. Listening to the opinions of the youth leaders early on changed this plan. They shared that while they may have had experience in raising money, they wanted to learn more about nonprofit management AND participate in a hands-on fundraising effort for a local cause.

Another key effort was generating awareness to area students and their families to create awareness and recruit youth to be engage in the program. The core effort was led by HCCCF’s Youth Philanthropy Leadership Committee. These seven students helped draft a letter and get approval from the Hopkinton High School principal to share this letter to the entire student body, despite the program not being run by the school. They also had peer-to-peer discussions at school. These efforts resulted in nearly 40 students attending our first ever information session. This information session was co-created and planned by HCCCF, FFMW, and the seven youth leaders.  The youth leaders led the session, sharing what inspired them to get more involved. (And no, it wasn’t just the parents this time!) They had the idea to show a brief animated video that defined philanthropy in basic terms. We also had former FFMW Youth in Philanthropy students share their experiences, and FFMW led an interactive exercise that had everyone up on their feet, listening, and participating.  Nearly all of those who attended formally applied to be a part of the youth philanthropy program. Biggest lesson…let youth lead.

Lastly, we are exploring a collaboration with another high school in the area – South Community High School in Worcester, MA. Some of the youth leaders and I spent a full day at South High learning about the school and their youth philanthropy program taught by school administrators and teachers.  In most cases, the students of Worcester and Hopkinton come from very different socio-economic backgrounds and life experiences. South High is much more ethnically/racially diverse than Hopkinton, and each group brings a different perspective in their grantmaking efforts. The opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other was meaningful to both sets of students and together.

Overall, I believe there are five major points to be made when considering the creation of a youth philanthropy program:

  1. Involve youth from the beginning. Listen to their ideas and interests and create a genuine sense of ownership in shaping the program.
  2. Give young people the opportunity to lead at every Youth leading conversations, sharing personal stories, and spreading awareness are a vital part in generating momentum for the program.
  3. Embrace partnerships. Realize your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and find alliances with other groups in order to bolster aspects of the program and enhance the overall experience for participants.
  4. Value feedback before, during, and after the program from those participating. Listen and refine often.
  5. Reach young people where they are. Know the most current social platforms and use these to connect and communicate with students, both individually and collectively.

After planning and recruiting youth—all led by young people, the Hopkinton Country Club Charitable Foundation will launch its inaugural program in the fall of 2016 with the youth who applied engaged and planned by these youth leaders. For more information, contact Kelly Nowlin at .


Picture of About Kelly Davenport Nowlin

About Kelly Davenport Nowlin

Kelly Nowlin is principal, KDN Philanthropy Consulting; trustee, Surdna Foundation; and Chair, Andrus Family Program.  She helped create the Hopkinton Country Club Charitable Foundation’s youth philanthropy program.