Young grantmakers leverage dollars, enrich community foundations

When Randy Maiers describes a young grantmakers’ program to those unfamiliar with the concept, he often hears similar responses.

“People are always shocked that we allow our young people so much grantmaking freedom,” said Maiers, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County in Port Huron, Mich.

“They say, ‘Wow! You let high schoolers decide how to spend up to $25,000 without any adult oversight?’”

After completing a rigorous training program, Maiers says, youth should be given full ownership of their grantmaking budget, which ranges from $40,000 to $50,000 annually in St. Clair County. Of that amount, up to $25,000 can be awarded for a single grant.

“Our young people become solid grantmakers,” Maiers said. “They are tough and very good.”

The youth grantmaking program, called the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC), was created in Michigan two decades ago and has flourished nationally. A similar international program is called YouthBanks.

Typically, YACs in the U.S. share two broad characteristics: They have endowments (in Michigan, they are often $1 million or more) to fund youth projects perpetually, and they operate as one of several grantmaking committees at community foundations.

When approached at national philanthropic conferences by someone exploring whether to develop a youth grantmaking program, Maiers is eager to discuss YACs as an option. Autonomy is key for a successful youth grantmaking program, he says, and cautions leaders against the temptation to micro-manage young people.

While YACs are terrific vehicles for teaching high school students both philanthropic and leadership skills, says Maiers, they also provide tangible benefits for community foundations.

Randy Maiers“Don’t underestimate young people’s skill and talent. After going away to school or work, we hope they will come back — in 10, 15 or 20 years — and become leaders in the community and at the community foundation.”

— Randy Maiers

YACs are positioned to partner with other committees — arts, education or scholarships — to help leverage grantmaking dollars and expand the scope of particular projects.

For example, an art project designed for the general public can be tailored to appeal to youth when YACs are invited to share their expertise about young people’s interests and contribute a portion of their grantmaking dollars.

In Reading, Pa., the YAC is a vital committee at the Berks County Community Foundation, says Kevin K. Murphy, foundation president. In his additional role as chairman of the board of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Foundations, he shares the YAC philosophy nationwide because, Murphy says, he has witnessed the valuable contributions these committees make to community foundations.

For many years, the Reading-based YAC has participated in cross-cultural exchanges with young grantmakers in Togliatti, Russia. The experiences, he says, have enriched lives in Russia and the U.S. while increasing awareness about the community foundation’s work at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, YAC projects have piqued the public’s interest in the community foundation’s work in St. Clair County, helping raise the institution’s profile, Maiers says. Additionally, having a YAC representative as a grantmaking peer on the foundation’s full board of directors brings a different, needed perspective to the table, he says. Their knowledge, experience and active involvement in the local community is valued now — and would be beneficial in the future, too, Maiers says.

“I tell others, ‘Don’t underestimate young people’s skill and talent,’” he said. “After going away to school or work, we hope they will come back — in 10, 15 or 20 years — and become leaders in the community and at the community foundation.”

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