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How I Am Teaching My Kids to Give Back

By: Alexis Owen, Director of Philanthropic Services

With the holidays in full swing, the subject of giving is on many people’s minds.  As we look back on the year and celebrate the joys and blessings we’ve been given, we also turn our attention to those who are less fortunate, and do what we can to share what we have.  But how did we learn to do so?

Before joining First Western as the director of philanthropic services, I started and ran a nonprofit called the Young Philanthropists Foundation (YPF). At YPF, we believe the earlier you learn to give, the more likely you are to give when you grow up.  And so every day we work to empower kids with the tools and experiences they need to make the world a better place, because we know the future of any community lies in the hands of its youngest citizens.

Since YPF began programming in 2007, the kids in our programs have collected and given out more than $800,000 in micro grants and more than 1.2 million service hours to those causes they care most about.  These figures are all the more impressive when you realize the money they raised came in by collecting idle change from their communities.  Imagine having the tenacity to collect almost $1 million in spare change, all in the name of doing good!

Over the ten years that I ran the Young Philanthropists Foundation, there was one thing that stood out for me as the key to inspiring young people to give: choice.  Too often we underestimate children’s capacity to understand and act on the issues they see around them.  And so in an effort to simplify, we eliminate their choice, and in so doing, we silence their voices.  We tell them where they are going to give or volunteer instead of asking them where they would like to give or volunteer.  When you take away their agency and autonomy, you take away their desire to participate.  That is why the term community service has such a bad rap.

As a mother of two young boys, 5 and 9, I am fortunate to have had the experience with YPF, because I put what I learned into practice to pass on the value of service to my kids.  This is what I started to engage my children in giving.

  1. Each boy gets a set allowance each week.  I make sure I give it to them in small bills so it can be easily divided.
  2. I tell each he needs to put some in his Savings envelope and some in his Share envelope.  The rest he can use to spend as he wishes.
  3. Each quarter the three of us choose a service project to participate in.  Not every organization can accommodate young kids, so I pre-screen for those that can and try to find organizations addressing a variety of issues.  I then ask the boys which project they would like to do.
  4. Before each project, we do research and talk about the issue we are going to help with.  This is a great way to help prepare them and give them some context for the project.
  5. At the end of each project, we talk about what we learned, what we liked, and what we didn’t.  Reflection is key.
  6. At the end of the year, we take out our Share envelopes.  Whatever amount they have I match 2 to 1.  We then talk about where we would like the money to go, reflecting on where we did service and where we see the biggest need.
  7. The decision for where to give and how much is left up to the boys entirely.  I do not try to influence their decisions, but I do ask questions to get them thinking, like, “If you give to this charity, what would you want them to do with the money?” or  “If you split the money up, will you be able to do as much good as if you give it all to one place?”

At the end of the process, we drop the donation off at the organization(s) so the boys can see firsthand where their money is going.  The result is a great feeling of accomplishment and pride, not only for the work they did to decide on how to spend their money, but also for all they did along the way to make the world a better place.

Whether your kids are young or older, or you’re looking to involve your grandkids, the same process can work, and it provides a great way to bring your family together around shared values, not just at the holidays, but all year long.

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