When foundations set out to engage more community members in philanthropy, they mostly have adult community members in mind. But the Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP), an institution of ACCESS, has been finding some of its most enthusiastic and motivated new philanthropists in a different age cohort: teenagers. Since its founding in 2009, the Michigan-based national philanthropic organization has been working to build civically engaged Arab American leaders – not just across communities but across generations as well. In 2011, sensing an opportunity to help Arab American youth take their community service to the next level, CAAP launched the Teen Grantmaking Initiative (TGI), a program that puts teens in charge of deciding which worthy causes and organizations to support, and grant their time, talent, and treasure to throughout the year.
Designed to run alongside the school calendar, the initiative trains roughly 24 young people each year on the ins and outs of the grantmaking process – everything from conducting a community needs assessment to reviewing grant requests and doing site visits. Participants also do their own fundraising through bake sales, car washes and other events, raising about $5,000 annually. Since 2011, more than 125 TGI teens have raised and granted more than $40,000 to nonprofits addressing issues important to youth in the community.
While TGI grants are small, their impact can be substantial. In 2018, TGI approached Covenant House Michigan, an organization offering shelter and training to at-risk and homeless youth, to learn more about their work. Ultimately, TGI invited a proposal and funded the organization, enabling Covenant House to launch a new program geared toward homeless teens with mental health and drug issues. “They were very serious about their commitment to help the community,” says Covenant House Associate Executive Director Cynthia Adams. “They were the pioneers in making this program happen.”
As Adams and other TGI grantees have learned, young people bring unique insight to philanthropy, operating as well informed and full-fledged givers in their own right. “They can identify with our young people and with what’s going on in the world today,” says Adams. “I think that really empowers them to have a voice in the community and to begin to do something about the social ills.” Program participants see it that way, too. “I used to associate philanthropy with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or Bill Gates and Oprah,” says TGI member Yasmine Slimani. “That’s what’s so cool about TGI, because we’re 17, 16, 15 and we’re philanthropists.”
We don’t only learn things about philanthropy and fundraising, we also learn about ourselves; I think that’s the best part about it.
The experience helps build leadership and collaboration skills. “They learn and practice how to speak about what they believe, get team members to see what they see, and agree on where they want to focus their grantmaking,” says CAAP Director Maha Freij. It is also teaching them a lot about who they want to be in the world. “It really does teach you compassion, especially when you look at everything through the lens of other people’s lives,” says Alex Elamine, who joined TGI as a high school freshman. “We don’t only learn things about philanthropy and fundraising, we also learn about ourselves; I think that’s the best part about it.”
Teen Grantmaking Initiative is the only Arab American youth grantmaking group in the United States. But CAAP now partners with Arab American nonprofits across the country to expand the program. There are currently three chapters with more in the works. Mariam Bezih, a college student who participated in TGI in high school and has already co-founded her own nonprofit, sees power and possibility in getting every teen to see themselves as change-makers in their community. “Do you know what kind of change that would make? We’d all become community philanthropists.”
“The most common misconception is because we’re young and we’re inexperienced we shouldn’t have strong opinions on things and we shouldn’t fight for things because we don’t know what the real world is like,” says Slimani. “But I think the fact that we are so young necessitates our involvement because we are technically the future. We have to start shaping the world that we want to live in, and this is kind of where it starts.” Adds CAAP’s Freij: “When I see these young people, I see heroes. They are the future leaders of this work.”
Learn more about the Center for Arab American Philanthropy’s Teen Grantmaking Initiative.