When I was 14, I used my allowance to buy a t-shirt from the Body Shop that read, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." The proverb made a lot of sense to me, and I remember feeling good about the store's promise that proceeds from the sale would be donated to an international aid organization. I also remember feeling frustrated that I didn't know how else to help those in need.
Teenage girls can be surprisingly empathetic, compassionate, and idealistic, in spite of the stereotype that they are unappreciative narcissists. Oftentimes, they simply need to be given the chance and the tools to effect positive change in the world around them. Women's foundations and girls' organizations across the country have started "Girls As Grantmakers" programs which provide exactly those opportunities. They operate based on the principle that girls can learn to be philanthropists in the same way that they learn to be athletes, mathematicians, artists, and leaders -- through practical experience.
The Girls Grant Project at the Women's Foundation of Greater Kansas City was founded in 1999, and since then, girls in the program have made 37 grants, totaling $97,180. The foundation raises up to $20,000 a year specifically for Girls Grant, which a group of high school girls award as they see fit. Project Coordinator Jackie Loya-Torres frequently tells the young philanthropists, "I have the keys to the building and the money to buy pizza. You do the rest."
The grantmakers range from sophomores to seniors in high school, and the seniors participate in selecting the newest members of the team. They meet on a regular basis throughout the year and make all decisions unanimously. They write their own guidelines for the grants that they award, and every fall, they put out a call for proposals. The girls review and discuss each grant and then make site visits to some of the organizations that they are considering. After much deliberation, the girls award funding to the programs that most clearly satisfy their guidelines; they must empower and serve girls in their community.
"Our team is so diverse," Jackie says proudly. "We have daughters of huge philanthropists and girls from low-income families. It's a great cross section of the Greater Kansas City area itself, and it speaks volumes as to how everyone can work together."
One of the grantmakers was a girl who had been living in a foster home. Jackie recalls that even though the other girls came from very different backgrounds, they welcomed her into the group and ensured that she had a ride to every meeting. They also valued her unique perspective. When they were considering giving a grant to an organization which helped homeless girls, she shared her personal experience and asked her colleagues, "If you don't have a home to go to, how do you get your homework done? If you don't have electricity, how can you see it?"
Since all grantmaking decisions must be made by consensus, the girls have to advocate for programs that they feel strongly about. Jackie tells me that they have an affinity for funding certain agencies, such as ones that assist in teen pregnancy and parenting. "It's hard to see a girl who looks just like them sitting a cross the table, holding a crying baby and not be moved."
Other organizations which the girls have awarded grants to: create sports programs for girls, prevent dating violence, take vision-impaired girls on challenging field trips, and assist daughters of migrant workers. Through the process, the young philanthropists become experts on issues affecting their peers. After visiting the daughters of migrant workers and learning about their living conditions, the grantmakers began to give more thought to their own purchases, such as the apple they eat for lunch.
"These girls have big hearts," Jackie tells me. "Wherever I set the bar, they meet it."
And even though participants in Girls Grant are only required to serve for one year, they often stay in the program until they graduate. Jackie has seen a high retention rate of about 99.8 percent. She has also seen girls come back from college to get involved with the Women's Foundation and -- the ultimate proof that they have learned to become philanthropists -- write a check to Girls Grant Project.
For all its wisdom, "Give a man a fish..." is an ancient proverb. Perhaps we need a new motto, one to turn girls into lifelong leaders. Something like... Teach a girl to make a difference in the lives of other girls and you will feed the self-esteem of numerous young women for a lifetime.