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Learning to give at a young age

Children are more involved in charitable works, experts say, because technology exposes them to the world's woes.

January 08, 2008|Philip Rucker | Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- In lieu of presents at her 12th birthday party last year, Maddie Freed asked her friends to bring money, raising $800 for Children's Hospital here.

Jenny Hoekman, 8, saves a third of what she makes walking dogs and recently donated it to help her suburban Brownie troop sponsor an immigrant family.

And in Club Penguin, a popular online game club for the elementary school set, more than 2.5 million kids gave their virtual earnings to charities in a contest last month. In response, the site's founders are giving $1 million to charities based on the children's preferences.

Children and teenagers nationwide are getting involved in philanthropy more than ever, according to research and nonprofit experts, who credit new technologies with the rise of the trend. As young people increasingly become exposed to and connected with the problems of the world via the Internet and television, experts said, parents are finding new ways to instill in their children the value of giving.

At the same time, technology is democratizing philanthropy, so giving is not only easier for people of all ages and means but also trendier. And children are starting to organize at the grass-roots level to give.

"We've globalized technology, we've globalized commerce, but we haven't globalized compassion," said Craig Kielburger, founder of Free the Children, a nonprofit network of kids helping kids. "But we're seeing a generation of kids, ages 10 to 15, who are aware of global problems, and they're really searching to help.

"The next step is to help kids move from that awareness to action."

At Club Penguin, children's penguins have virtual jobs, earn virtual coins and can buy things for their virtual igloo homes. The site held a 10-day "Coins for Change" campaign ending on Christmas Eve in which 2.5 million users donated in some cases as many as 1,500 coins -- enough to furnish an igloo -- to charities. In turn, the site, owned by Walt Disney Co., divided 1 million real dollars among the charities: the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund and Free the Children.

Important lessons

Lane Merrifield, the site's co-founder, said teaching kids about philanthropy is "part of our responsibility."

"We don't live in a world that is just about playing games or going to work and earning coins and buying stuff. There's also giving back."

This holiday season, thousands of parents gave their kids "give cards," sold through philanthropy sites such as Like gift certificates, the cards enable people to go to an online marketplace and find a charity to make a donation.

Also popular among youth are "embedded" gifts: items such as T-shirts, scarves or cellphones that have a charitable donation built into the price. For example, the (Product) RED campaign at such retail outlets as Gap and Apple, spearheaded by U2 lead singer Bono, raises money to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Established foundations and nonprofit groups are engaging children and teens in new ways. In the Washington region, the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region began a youth philanthropy program about five years ago in local jurisdictions. The program makes some of the foundation's money available to a board made up exclusively of students who study needs among disadvantaged youth in their counties, and the students then award grants to certain projects.

Giving for all

"What's magical about the program is that young people usually don't have the opportunity to make decisions and have that kind of power," said Silvana Straw, senior program officer at the Community Foundation.

Some groups make youth philanthropy a primary mission. New Global Citizens, a national nonprofit group based in San Francisco, mobilizes high school students to tackle such global issues as poverty, child labor and disease by raising money for vetted projects.

"Now they could have friends on Facebook who are in the middle of these things," co-founder Nicole Sanchez said. "They're hearing stories firsthand about the Darfur genocide or about the mudslides in Indonesia. Most young people's immediate reaction is, 'What can I do to help?' and 'What do you need from me?' "

Philanthropy once conjured up images of "very wealthy people in ball gowns at the opera," Sanchez said. "What we're trying to do is demonstrate that anybody can be a philanthropist and have an impact."

And the scale of giving by children now is "mind-boggling," said Lucy Bernholz, founder and president of Blueprint Research and Design, a leading consulting firm for nonprofit organizations.

"It used to be the pennies we raised through UNICEF boxes, and now you're talking about 15- and 17-year-old children who are savvy enough and committed enough to raise tens of thousands of dollars and sending it halfway around the world," Bernholz said.

Trickling down?

Nonprofit sector leaders say the newfound focus on giving among youth might be a natural extension of the increasing attention paid in recent years to community service, at corporations and universities and among high school students seeking admission to competitive colleges.

"I think what it might be is a trickle-down of graduate school education, the business schools, where there's really been a huge explosion of adding socially geared programs and courses into business school curriculum," Bernholz said.

Joanna Sharpless, 19, who sat on a youth philanthropy board, said the experience helped her realize the power of philanthropy. "It was a very eye-opening experience in terms of just being able to see the real problems that kids my age were dealing with in communities that were so close to me and yet seemed so far away," said Sharpless, now a Brown sophomore, who wrote about it in her college admissions essay.

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