Young philanthropists ask tough questions

We are 17-year-old identical twin brothers, living a comfortable life in suburban Los Angeles. We attend one of Southern California’s finest prep schools. We are diligent students, music-lovers, avid surfers and members of our school’s water polo team — a commitment that requires more than 18 hours a week of practice.

What we weren’t — until recently — were philanthropists.

That all changed when our grandfather recommended us for a six-week program called the Community Youth Foundation (CYF), sponsored by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. We groaned at the thought of another time commitment, but our school’s mandatory community service requirement was coming due — and, besides, we didn’t want to disappoint Grandpa.

CYF teaches fortunate teenagers like us about the nonprofit world and the process of grantmaking. The goal is to instill tikkun olam — the Jewish principle of repairing the world — into our generation, and to give us the tools to become effective philanthropists later in life. The teens who participate come from philanthropic families, and the Jewish Community Foundation — which manages charitable funds from donors and distributes grants to many worthy causes — wants to ensure that we understand and participate in our family’s philanthropic activities.

That sounded fine to us. How hard could it be to give away money to charity? You just pick an organization you like, and write a check!

We were about to discover that there was a lot more to it.

In our first meeting, 20 teens met Dr. Susan Grinel, who heads the Family Foundation Center, a resource of The Foundation that helps people like our grandfather make the most of their charitable giving. She said we were going to function as a committee to award $10,000 in grants to several local nonprofits –both Jewish and secular. Basically, we would be going through the same process The Foundation goes through when it makes grants to the community.

We were amazed at how much research goes into these decisions. You have to answer a lot of questions. Does the organization really need the money? Would it use the money wisely? How many people does it serve? How many staff members are paid, and how many are volunteers?

Once Grinel explained that we, as grantmakers, would be acting as a bridge between the problems in Los Angeles and potential solutions, we had a new view of ourselves and our position in the community. Sure, we’d done volunteer work before, but it had always felt like a chore. Now we felt empowered to make a difference.

The Foundation organized several nonprofits for our group to visit and we went out in pairs to tour the facilities and meet with the organization’s executives. Now it was our turn to ask the tough questions and evaluate how to most effectively distribute the grant money. If the organization proved worthy, we had to be prepared to argue on its behalf to the group.

We were assigned to visit after-school programs, including A Place Called Home, a secular program in South Los Angeles where inner-city kids can go to get away from gangs and violence. It operates out of several small bungalows, and few of its staff is paid. Then we visited a Jewish after-school program in the San Fernando Valley, which had a big, modern facility with a 50-meter pool. Both organizations were doing good things for the community, but it was obvious which one we wanted to help the most.

Our last CYF meeting was exhilarating. We were like business executives pitching our nonprofits to the other participants, vying to win a piece of the grant. Several teens wanted all the money to go to Jewish organizations, but we were equally passionate that the whole $10,000 go to agencies that directly benefit people in need, regardless of their religion.
In the end, we compromised and split the money among four organizations: We gave $3,000 to A Place Called Home; $5,000 to Jewish Family Service, to support its programs for various disadvantaged populations; $1,000 to L.A. Works, an organization that feeds volunteers to other non-profits that need help; and another $1,000 to Shelter Partnership, which provides short-term and transitional housing for the homeless and advocates and raises awareness for that population.

We can honestly say that community service no longer feels like a chore. We recognize how fortunate we are and now feel much better prepared to help others. Of course, we don’t have any income yet, but we’re already taking small steps, like Sam’s becoming a member of the Surfrider Foundation, which helps protect the world’s beaches.

Soon we’ll be heading off to college, and it won’t be long before we’re earning money in our chosen careers. Once that happens, the nonprofit agencies that are working to solve community problems can count on us for support.

But first, we’re going to have to ask them a lot of questions.

Alex and Sam de Castro-Abeger are seniors at Harvard-Westlake School.