Pierceton Woods Academy, a residential home for teenage boys in northeast Indiana, is the type of community based nonprofit you might expect to be the benefactor of philanthropic giving. The academy helps troubled boys by stepping in, temporarily, for their families and offering specialized structure and support.
But the Dekko Foundation didn’t partner with Pierceton Woods as a means of giving to the boys. Its goal was to provide the boys the opportunity to be contributors themselves.
“When young people are empowered to identify and address a community need, they try things and sometimes they succeed and other times they fail,” says Kimberly Schroeder, program officer for the Dekko Foundation. “But, overall they develop a realistic understanding of their community and themselves while gaining important skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision making.”
The Dekko Foundation has supported the development of philanthropically minded citizens for 20 years. Its successful Youth Pod model matches community nonprofits and adult mentors with a group of 13- to 18-year-olds who are offered $15,000 to address a community need. “Research shows that philanthropy and service to community are learned skills,” says Sharon Smith, the Dekko Foundation’s program director. “We help teens learn to bring about positive community change by doing. In the process we are changing how people think, believe, and act.”
Schroeder says effective youth philanthropy requires a keen understanding of youth development. She says teenagers are wired for novelty, risk, and peer authority. They are tired of the classroom and are yearning to find their place in the world. “We have learned that it is important – and sometimes difficult – for the adults to lead from behind,” says Schroeder. “But when the ideas, the grant giving, and its management are genuinely in the kids’ hands, it opens a whole new world of experiences.”
In an alumni survey, more than 80% of adults who participated in the Youth Pods as teens say they gained important skills such as leadership and communication, nonprofit awareness, and fiscal responsibility. Half say the experience has shaped who they are today, and 98% say they are actively engaged in giving.
The Dekko-funded Youth Pods are supported by the local school systems, which allow their students to miss school once a month to do the philanthropic work. “One of the challenges when it comes to engaging youth in philanthropy is the competing demands on young people’s time, so the schools’ support provides a critical framework for successful community based youth philanthropy,” Schroeder says.
In the case of Pierceton Woods Academy, the boys wanted to improve a neighborhood park. This project required that they study their community, choose a project, work within a budget, and present their plan to the town council. In their grant report, Pierceton Woods’ leaders stated, “We have seen firsthand how participation in this project has brought out a sense of confidence and enthusiasm in our youth.”
A Pierceton Woods student said, “The project made me feel good about myself. It feels good to finish a project knowing that I’ve helped the community.”
“Partnering with Pierceton Woods taught us that it is not just the best and the brightest that can benefit from youth philanthropy experience,” Smith says. “It is equally valuable – perhaps even more impactful – with teens who would otherwise not have the opportunity to learn the rich rewards of giving. We must strive to find more ways to reach teens from all walks of life.”
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