More than child's play: Engaging youth in philanthropy

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When nine-year-old Alaina Podmorow agreed to join her mother one evening at a presentation by author and activist Sally Armstrong, she was just hoping to cadge a later bedtime. But the presentation changed Alaina's life. Armstrong spoke about the lack of education for women and girls in Afghanistan and Alaina was riveted.

"I knew right away that I wanted to raise money to pay for one teacher in Afghanistan for one year," she recalls. "I went up and talked to Sally and told her how I wanted to do something and she told me to contact Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. I contacted them and we have become partners."

That partnership lead to Podmorow starting Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan (LW4LW), beginning in the spring of 2007 with a group of students at her Kelowna, British Columbia-area school and a silent auction. LW4LW has since gone on start more teams across Canada and has raised more than $350,000 for Canadian Women For Women in Afghanistan to pay teacher salaries and buy school supplies and mobile library kits for rural villages.

This January, Podmorow won Mackenzie Financial's Top Teen Philanthropist award, adding to her list of achievements, which includes being named a Global Teen Leader at the 2011 Three Dot Dash Summit in New York City and a Huggable Hero by the Build-A-Bear Workshop.

"I have seen youth involvement go up over the years," says Podmorow, now aged 14. "There's so many things that kids and youth can be doing — playing sports, chilling out and watching TV, or going to the mall — but they're fundraising and making a difference."

Thirteen-year-old Mark Mannarn used his family's experience of cancer to make a difference. His grandmother and mother were both diagnosed with cancer, and the death of his grandmother and his mother's continuing battle pushed him to start Minor Hockey Fights Cancer "Feel Like A Pro Day", which lets minor hockey players train with professionals for the day when they raise $250 in sponsorships.

With the help of his dad and his friend Blake's dad — who happens to be NHL Hall of Famer Paul Coffey — the first Feel Like A Pro Day took place in June 2011 and raised $200,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society. This past November, that accomplishment won him the Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Toronto Chapter. There are plans to expand to other parts of the country, develop a "tourney in a box" kit, and more actively recruit young female players.

While not every teen has Podmorow's and Mannarn's level of commitment, engaging youth in its cause can have benefits for a nonprofit.

"Youth have massive networks, plus they'll talk about the cause at the dinner table," says Lesley Ring, vice-president, development and marketing, at the Canadian Cancer Society, Ontario Division. "Youth philanthropy becomes family philanthropy."

While the energy, connectivity (and media attention) a young activist can generate could be a boon to a nonprofit, the flip side is that many youth are equally content to be clicktivists, limiting their involvement to texting donations or "liking" a cause on Facebook.

So how can your nonprofit work effectively with kids and youth? And should you even try?

A cute kid does not a spokesman make

Let's be blunt for a moment: the media typically love covering young fundraisers and activists, which could make engaging youth seem like a good bet for a nonprofit looking to build its profile, add enthusiasm and expand its donor base. But there is a difference between partnering with a driven kid who has independently taken up your cause and trying to ride the coattails of a budding philanthropist.

"We jump on opportunities to partner with like-minded organizations," says Jamie Podmorow, Alaina's mother. "But sometimes you get a feeling that it's energy-sucking, so you have to be watchful."

The caveat for nonprofits is, as you to reach out to youth and grow awareness of who you are and what you do, let them drive the agenda and their level of involvement. Don't expect to cultivate a cute hand puppet to wave your organization's flag.

Connecting with youth through social media is harder than you think

Like the now-quaint idea that computers would create "the paperless office", the idea that a Facebook page, Twitter feed, and Tumblr account will instantly — and easily — connect a nonprofit to the world of youth should be examined carefully.

"With social media, it's like youth are flying the plane as its being built," says Ring. And that ever-changing nature of social media usage can become a burden for organizations looking to get on board.

"Social media is a job in itself and it gets added on top of other work within an organization. It's labour-intensive and tedious and also more research-intensive than people think," says Kyle Degraw, communications coordinator for World Literacy Canada, an organization that delivers community education programs in India, Nepal and Canada and is looking to engage youth in both volunteering and fundraising.

"You have to use it constantly: posting to Facebook once a month might be seen as sloppy and not caring. You have to be omnipresent in the minds of youth, even if you're not saying, 'Give us your time or give us your money.'"

What does "omnipresent" mean? Degraw aims for one to five posts on Twitter and/or Facebook per day and notes that it took seven months of solid work, in addition to his other job responsibilities, to get 800 followers for World Literacy Canada's Twitter feed.

"There is a myth in the nonprofit sector that social media will lead to a boon in fundraising. I haven't seen it. Social media are part of a wider, more complex web and we need to be present — but magic doesn't happen overnight."

"We estimate that 10 to 15 percent of volunteer recruits and donations come through social media," says Dunn. "Though the biggest impact social media has had for us is that more people know about WLC than ever before."

Continuing to grow their social media profile has become particularly important for WLC as their decades-long funding from the Canadian International Development Agency was cut just before Christmas 2011, as was the funding of 100 other charities previously supported by CIDA. Though Dunn remains positive about the power of youth to mobilize through social media.

"I work with a lot of youth and I am absolutely blown away by their energy, passion and creativity. Once they learn what the issues are, they want to make a difference and that can spread like wildfire."

Watch your language!

"There's this idea that you have to reduce your language or talk down to a younger audience. I see that a lot and I don't think kids are encouraged by that," says Degraw. "Don't water it down; people have a higher tolerance for the meat of the message. We have had great response to short, punchy, intellectual pieces on our website."

Two strategies that can get youth involved and keep your communications relevant to them: invite a responsible, articulate youth to join your organization's social media team; ask a few kids to come to your events to write blog posts for your website or tweet from the event. But be prepared to give editorial guidance and let Tweeters and bloggers know that their posts are an important part of the nonprofit's communications strategy, not a digital vanity press. That said, if you find yourself micromanaging or re-writing every post, reconsider whether your organization is ready for this kind of youth involvement.

And whatever you do, don't try to incorporate slang, name-drop current bands, or otherwise try to be young in your youth-directed communications: given the short shelf-life of pop culture references, you will, at best, date your content and make it seem stale or, at worst, come across as clueless.

"When youth speak to youth it's effective," says Degraw. "But they know when an adult is trying to speak to them."

It will sometimes be like herding cats

Young people bring energy, creativity and a willingness to take risks but they're still kids.

"There needs to be a balance between providing them the freedom to be creative and innovative — but we do need to help them to focus, because they need to finish what they start," says Ring.

That same energy can also lead to a simplistic, "A or B" approach that can lead to frustration for everyone unless the organization does its part to guide and educate.

"It does take training from our end to ensure that youth understand how complicated international development work is in order for it to be sustainable and effective. It's not just 'These people are poor and we need to help them; let's get them a well or build a school,'" says Allison Dunn, program coordinator for World Literacy Canada.

Indeed, a generation coming of age when technology literally puts the world in their hand knows how quickly change can happen and may presume that's both the norm and desirable. When Twitter and Facebook are credited for sustaining the Arab Spring and when texted donations generate millions for the victims of disasters in Haiti and Japan, it can be easy for youth to believe that change is a linear progression.

"There's so much idealism in youth activism because they create this momentum and it grows," says Jamie Podmorow. "But as Alaina grows she'll realize that it doesn't always work out like that. There were a lot of people who hammered her up for an article she wrote for the Globe and Mail about NATO's involvement in Afghanistan — which is a multi-layered conundrum. But when you're a kid, you see one simple answer and it's very difficult when you're told, 'That's not how it works.'"

However steep the learning curve may be for young volunteers, fundraisers and activists, their desire to create change and to make the world better is heartening not only for the nonprofits who can benefit from their participation but society as a whole.

"There's more going on now at the grassroots level than there was five, ten, and 20 years ago to get young people involved," says Brad Offman, vice-president, strategic philanthropy at Mackenzie Financial, and one of the judges of the Top Teen Philanthropist award.

"By the time these people are 30 years old, they'll be seasoned, sophisticated philanthropists. It bodes well for the future of our country."

Benita Aalto is a writer and communications consultant with extensive experience in corporate communications as well as in print and broadcast journalism. She has been a featured guest on TVO, CTV, CBC Newsworld, and CBC Radio, among others.

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