For the past five years, Stephen Smith has hosted a Christmas party for friends and family in his home, located in an affluent section of Houston. The purpose of the party is to raise awareness of and make donations to the Salvation Army of the Greater Houston area. Guests bring canned goods, toys, and offer monetary donations. About 120 people attended last December's party, and over the past five years $10,000 has been raised in total for the charity. What makes this party so different from most holiday celebrations is that the host is only 9 years old.
"After I saw some homeless people when I was 4 years old, I just felt like I wanted to do something to help them and give to those who just don't have as much. I came up with the idea for the party at that time, and with my parent's help, this has grown every year," Smith says.
Smith, whose parents, Jeff and Kathryn, own a Houston public relations firm, taught their son the meaning of philanthropy by their own example of volunteering and donating to charities. These parents and others like them across the country are increasingly encouraging their kids to become philanthropists. And the kids are responding from young children to teen-agers doing everything from donating birthday money and hosting fundraisers to organizing the building of new homes for impoverished families in foreign countries and even launching their own non-profits.
Juvenile philanthropy among the wealthy has increased by as much as 30% to 40% over the past decade, says Bruce Bickel, senior vice president with PNC Wealth Management in Pittsburgh, which works with families nationwide with net worth of $5 million and above.
Several factors have fueled this growth, including the explosion of information about charitable giving available on the internet, the public example of celebrities and athletes who help the less fortunate, and the onslaught of natural and manmade disasters since September 11th, 2001. And more and more affluent parents are showing young people the meaning of giving back.
In fact, just over 70% of wealthy donors discuss their philanthropy with their children and more than 35% allow their children to take part in the family's charitable work, according to an October 2006 study by Bank of America and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. One New York City-based wealth management firm, Lenox Advisors, even started a program that offers clients with children 18 and younger the tools and collateral to provide a specific money-related lesson for each year of their lives.
"These parents don't just want to throw money at their children; they want them to understand how to be proactive with their wealth and know how to spend, save, and donate wisely," says Tom Henske, partner at Lenox, which manages $1.5 billion in assets for clients with net worth ranging from $10 million to $100 million.
The same emphasis on giving back is evident in the educational system, as more private schools across the country encourage giving and volunteering. At the Solomon Schechter Day School in Boston, MA, a project launched this year called Kids Bank for the Poor, has students ages 10-14 running fundraisers for a microfinancing bank in a village in Malawi, Africa that lends money to families who want to start businesses. Fundraisers planned for this year include a raffle, dance marathon, bake sale and movie day at a local theater, says Penina Magid, the school's director of enrichment.
Volunteering and donating to poverty-related causes, such as Malawi, as well as non-profits that support the environment, social justice, and children are among the most popular causes for today's kids, says Susan Price, vice president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.
One group of eight teenagers in South Florida was so moved by the situation in Darfur that they started their own non-profit. For Darfur Inc., a 501 (c)(3) formed in March 2007, raises funds for Doctors Without Borders and general awareness of Darfur's plight through various fundraising events, says Gabriel Schillinger, 18, executive director and co-founder. The high school senior, who lives in Delray Beach, spends about 20-30 hours a week working with the organization. The group's 200 members ranging in age from 13 to 19 have raised over $300,000 so far. Schillinger says his parents, Mary Lou and Brent, both 55, have set an example for him with their own philanthropy including his father's pro bono services as a dermatologist.
"We are a global community that, through the Internet and media, are witnessing one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of our lifetime," Schillinger says. "There are no other non-profits in our area totally run by teenagers and we wanted to make an impact from the teenage community."
Making an impact through personal monetary donations inspired Benjamin Kestenbaum, 15, of Great Neck, N.Y., to forgo the fancy bar mitzvah that his parents offered him in early 2006 and instead create a fund to help rebuild two synagogues in New Orleans that had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. So far $25,000 has been raised and there are plans to continue the foundation the family formed for at least another eight to 10 years, says Benjamin's father, Alan, 51, a trial attorney.
Similarly, 13-year-old Nicholas Semler of New York City, followed in his parents' example of philanthropy by donating all of his bar mitzvah money over $50,000 to City Harvest, a nonprofit that funnels unused food from restaurants and grocery stores to food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the five boroughs of the Big Apple.
"I've seen the good that my parents have done and wanted to do something as well, especially for people who are hungry right here in my own city," says Nicholas, whose parents, Tracy, a freelance writer, and Eric, manager of a hedge fund, contribute to about 15 organizations.
Children are also traveling to far flung destinations with their parents and experiencing other cultures some of which are quite poor, Bickel notes. The proliferation of "voluntourism" vacations over the past five years in which travelers take trips combining leisure time with a volunteer project is in many ways a result of young people looking for unique opportunities, according to David Clemmons, founder of the five-year-old VolunTourism.org, a website that advises organizations on how to plan these trips.
Marly Reese, 14, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., took three trips to Tijuana, Mexico over the past three years to help build homes for poor families through an organization called Kids Korp USA. Based in Solana Beach, Calif., Kids Korps works as a middleman with 250 community organizations to offer those 18 and under volunteer experiences, says Program Director Robin Chappelow. Last year, Kids Korps doubled its number of service projects and those numbers are up by 20 percent this year.
In Reese's trips, which did not involve any vacation, she and other young volunteers spent 12-hour days from Fridays to Sundays building houses. "I was taught that if someone needs your help, you give it," Reese says. "After all, if you are lucky enough as a teenager to have money and time, then use them both to do something worthwhile."
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