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Teen Philanthropists More Focused Than Adult Counterparts?

By Stefanie Zelkind
Originally Published in eJewishPhilanthropy September 16, 2015

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,” warned the Cheshire Cat to Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Such obvious wisdom, and yet so often ignored – in our personal lives, in business, and, it seems, in our charitable giving. About 2 weeks ago, a new study reported that only 22% of donors have a mission statement or set of goals to guide their giving.

A mission statement is a powerful tool, serving as both compass and map as philanthropists navigate a busy landscape of communal needs and the nonprofit organizations working to address them. It is for this reason that one of the first tasks of a Jewish teen foundation board is to create a mission statement to guide their giving for the year. By participating in values clarification exercises, teens identify the values that matter most to them – first as individuals, and then as a group. This is, in and of itself, a meaningful activity and opportunity for reflection, self-awareness, and learning. Pairing these top values with the impact area(s) they’d like to focus on, teens then craft a mission statement for their foundation.

In addition to serving as the board’s first significant collective decision (with consensus-based grant allocations decisions to come later in the program), the mission statement acts as a “guiding light” throughout the year. As teens learn about the myriad of organizations and strategies they employ, they will make sure that organizations match up with the teen foundation’s mission before being further considered for funding. The mission statement helps the teens stay true to their core values and priorities even when they may find themselves swayed by a particularly compelling grant proposal or presentation. It reminds the teens of the mission they set out on together and helps them stay focused on the goals and impact they want to have through their grantmaking.

More than 100 Jewish teen foundations are set to run this year, giving thousands of teens an early start on a lifelong commitment to focused and intentional giving. And since the student often becomes the teacher, we adults would benefit by learning from these teen philanthropists. Because as Alice learns in her Wonderland adventure – “No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.”

Stefanie Zelkind is the founding director of the Jewish Teen Funders Network, a central resource for the growing field of Jewish teen philanthropy. She got her first taste of collective giving as a co-founder and participant of “No Small Change: A Tzedakah Collective for Women and Girls.” Stefanie can be reached at stefanie@jtfn.org.