What Makes a Curriculum About Youth Grantmaking, Service-learning, or Philanthropy Good?

Betsy Peterson


Excellent curriculum starts with the end in mind. Ask yourself, “What do I want youth to know and be able to do?” Starting with a clear understanding of what youth need to know as philanthropic citizens or grantmakers is the most meaningful way to guide a program’s activities and lesson content. Learning to Give, the philanthropy education resource that I run, is founded on a research-based framework of philanthropy standards and benchmarks that inform our informational papers,  1,700 lesson plans, educator mini-courses, literature guides, student activities, and other resources. The standards were developed by a panel of nationwide scholars and respected experts in the philanthropy field and are intended to optimize curricular planning across grades K-12. To me, a strong framework is a gift for curriculum designers because it takes out some of the guesswork and shifts our focus to creative exploration of a set of learning priorities.

A good curriculum exposes youth to deeper and deeper knowledge over time, and increases their philanthropic independence through repeated and varied hands-on experiences and reflection.  Our framework also emphasizes these critical themes:

  • Definitions of philanthropy (describe and compare the three sectors of society)
  • Philanthropy and civil society (the relationship between philanthropy and democracy)
  • Philanthropy and the individual (reasons to volunteer and careers in philanthropy)
  • Volunteerism and service (skills of volunteering, service, fundraising, and service-learning)

Effective philanthropy education includes teaching the knowledge, skills, and action of these philanthropy themes. While experiences with service can be powerful for youth, knowledge and skills provide context and motivation to make the service more impactful and lead to lifelong philanthropy practice.

  • Teaching the knowledge of philanthropy, including definitions, historic models, and understanding of the role of philanthropy in civil society, can deepen one-time service into service-learning or create a more lasting impact on the giver. For example, second grade students may meet a local philanthropist, define selflessness, or articulate the benefits and goals of saving for the future. Eighth-grade students may learn about Carnegie’s financial gift of libraries and the women who made it work locally. Eleventh graders may hear stories of Civil Rights Movement advocates and research careers in nonprofits. Several Learning to Give lessons teach the motivations for giving in faiths and cultures, showing students that universality of giving. One of our most popular lessons is a science lesson that teaches the mechanics of the water cycle and leads students to recognize the importance of conservation and personal responsibility.
  • Skills of philanthropy may be taught through the tools and techniques of action, such as using social media for advocacy, evaluating proposals and nonprofits, organizing a fundraiser, reading financial reports, and investigating issues. In one lesson, students learn advocacy skills through an investigation of news stories and social media, comparing positive and negative examples of people using their voice to make a difference about gun control, the environment, or the arts. Through critical thinking and communication, they turn their analysis into action. Because there are so many lessons, students have the opportunity to learn a wide variety of skills across a variety of issue areas, therefore developing their personal interests and competencies.
  • Youth action may take many forms, from collecting cans for a food drive to tutoring to advocating for safe drinking water at the state government. Adults may organize the earliest experiences, but as youth gain experience and techniques, they organize events that arise out of investigation along with personal resources and interests. Independent youth philanthropists use problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication skills with each other and in the wider community, while making the world a better place. This empowers youth to feel they are truly good people who can make a contribution, and they are grounded on a path to participatory citizenship and philanthropy.

Every learning opportunity – whether it’s a year-long curriculum or a one hour after school workshop – should build knowledge, skills, and action. Although we may be born with an innate sense of caring, philanthropy is not a skill we are born with. It is developed and nurtured with caring adults through repeated practice and exposure to well-organized and diverse ideas, skills, and experience.

About Betsy Peterson

About Betsy Peterson

Betsy is the director of Learning to Give.