How young is too young to teach philanthropy? Twenty-somethings? College? How about high school?
Ten years ago the Watson-Brown Foundation, headquartered in Thomson, Ga., thought it would be worthwhile to explore this question. The foundation president and director of scholarships searched for a group of high school students willing to be guinea pigs. Ten years and $500,000 later, that experiment has grown into a thriving aspect of the foundation’s philanthropic work.
The Watson-Brown Foundation’s Junior Board, composed entirely of high school students from the counties surrounding the board’s headquarters, financially supports historic preservation opportunities. The Thomson Chapter of the junior board was founded during the 2000-2001 academic year, a second chapter was founded in Milledgeville, Ga., in 2006, and a third chapter was founded in Athens, Ga., in 2007. Each board is based out of a historic house museum: Hickory Hill for the Thomson Chapter, the Old Governor’s Mansion for the Milledgeville Chapter, and the T.R.R. Cobb House for the Athens Chapter.
The junior boards are self-selecting and limited to 15 members per academic year. Students may remain on the board throughout their high school career. New members rarely have more than a Wikipedia-level knowledge of historic preservation; thus, the first few months of service are an intensive introduction. Training is conducted after school or on Saturdays with experts in various fields explaining a variety of topics, such as tax codes and assessing the integrity of a historic structure.
Once members are reasonably comfortable with historic preservation, the intense training in philanthropy begins. This tends to coincide with Requests for Proposals being sent to organizations that manage some sort of historic resource. The members learn to read a grant application, assess a budget and accompanying bid sheets, and determine if a project aligns with the mission of both the junior board and the overall foundation. Board members then conduct site visits to short-listed organizations/projects. Final funding for projects is determined entirely by the board, with the foundation president and the junior board coordinators providing input.
To date, boards have awarded more than $500,000 to dozens of organizations. Grant awards have spanned from $600 to $20,000 but average around $15,000. Projects include restoration of historic landscapes, conservation of Civil War banners, and archaeological surveys of battlefields.
Students enjoy their service on the board:
“Being on the board has taught me so much and has definitely given me a huge appreciation for the people who do what we do and even more for a living. It is so cool to see what is going on in our community and then see how we can help our community succeed! By restoring and helping preservation projects, I feel that we have really given back to our community in a way that is beneficial to everyone. I really enjoyed seeing and learning about the history that is everywhere you look and then being a part of helping preserve that history for future generations is amazing.”
- Mary Frances McGahee, Junior Board Vice-Chair 2009
I am often asked why we give high school students such incredible responsibility. In our experience, young people will meet the bar you set if you make the process meaningful for them. Do you feel high school students are ready for the responsibility of a grant program?
Michelle Zupan is curator for the Hickory Hill and the Tom Watson Birthplace.