On a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon, on a quiet street in Deerfield, a group of 15 teenagers sat around snacking, laughing, and passionately changing the face of Jewish philanthropy.
This was a meeting of Voices Alumni Foundation, young people who had taken part in at least one year of "Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation," also known as "Voices 101," a JUF-sponsored program that is designed to build the next generation of Jewish philanthropists.
This was no mock philanthropic exercise. This is a real foundation, with real money to give out to real projects and agencies. The Alumni Foundation members represent high schools from all over the area: New Trier, Highland Park High School, Deerfield High School, Chicagoland Jewish High School, and Oak Park River Forest.
The Voices Alumni Foundation has three functions: raise funds, allocate them, and engage in peer mentoring. In contrast to the Voices 101 experience, where there was an initial JUF endowment of $25,000 through a private donor, the Alumni Foundation will be doing all its own fundraising, but will then have access to JUF matching funds.
Under the guidance of Stephanie Goldfarb, senior associate of Youth Initiatives, and with markers and large pieces of paper, the group began laying out the areas of personal interests -where they would like to focus their giving. Before long, the list reflected the major challenges facing our world: Israel and coexistence education, immigration, mental health intervention through the arts, Africa, vocational/skills training, emergency cash assistance, the environment, LGBT/gender issues, and generally underserved populations.
The personal areas of interest also reflected the conversation within the group about the relative merits of supporting local causes over inter/national causes, and Jewish projects over those that serve the greater community. They were in full agreement that they wanted to give where they could make the biggest impact. Ethan Ramsay, a senior from Oak Park River Forest High School, articulated the difference between charity and social change. "Philanthropy can go either way," he said, but he thought they should emphasize giving where it promotes social change. They needed to "experience the organization" they choose, through volunteering. This kind of approach lends itself more easily to giving local.
It was clear from the comments and personal interests of the group members that the Jewish community was central to their goals, even if the recipient organizations were not specifically Jewish. Toby Klein, Glenbrook North sophomore, said she's certain she will be involved in the Jewish community as an adult, based on her experiences with Voices. She agreed with other members who stated the work they're all doing in the Alumni Foundation reflects the best values of the Jewish community.
As the afternoon turned into evening, the group began writing a mission statement, developed its organizational structure, sketched out grant schedules and RFP (requests for proposals) deadlines, and explored the topic of online fundraising, based on the summer experiences of group member Noa Ohcana. They also started planning the opening dinner and the Voices 101 retreat . At both of these events, the third function of the Alumni Foundation, that of peer mentoring, will come into play, sharing their experiences and insights with the Voices 101 cohorts, the younger, newer philanthropists-in-training. This year's Voices 101 group has a more diverse high school representation, with students from Highland Park High School, Walter Payton Prep, Oak Park River Forest, New Trier, North Shore Country Day School, Glenbrook North, Whitney Young, Ida Crown, Deerfield High School, and Francis W. Parker.
Bravely hosting 15 teenagers for this all-day meeting, Ellen and Jon Hattenbach praised the goals of the program their daughter Kira was so involved in, which included, "developing socially sensitive leaders, who will gain a deeper understanding of what JUF does, making them more engaged with Federation." Goldfarb added, "We are giving them new skills in grant-making, but also grant-writing. They are learning philanthropy from the other side, the giving side, so that they can recognize what good grant proposals look like. We hope they'll go out into the community and do fundraising, maybe even start their own foundations. I wouldn't be surprised if many of my teens are one day sitting on the JUF Board of Directors!"
Research has suggested that for the younger generations, large-organization giving has changed dramatically, favoring smaller institutions over umbrella-type institutions. But a group like the Alumni Foundation gives these particular young people an opportunity to see how smaller projects and initiatives can work within a larger institution, believing that it's the size of the project, not the organization, that will drive their giving guidelines, and increase the impact of their efforts. They want to know they're making a difference. Based on the passion, commitment and dedication of this group of fifteen, they already have.
Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation, now in its ninth year, is a program of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, while the Voices Alumni program is in its second year. For more information about Voices, visit www.juf.org/teens.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.