To celebrate her sixth birthday in March, Gabriella Cinquini of Monarch Beach, Calif., invited several dozen pals to her house. Spread across a backyard, with dazzling views of the Pacific Ocean, were all the accoutrements of pint-sized party-making: a moon bounce, petting zoo, streamers, balloons and a cake with blazing candles that needed extinguishing.
Nowhere to be seen, however, were stacks of gaily wrapped presents. That's because Gabriella asked that her friends forgo purchasing gifts, but instead make a donation to her favorite charity: the Mustard Seed Ranch, a farm in Southern California's Orange County that specializes in therapeutic horse-riding lessons and other animal therapy programs for underprivileged youth.
"Honestly? It wasn't Gabriella's idea," her father, Tony, acknowledged with a wry laugh. "I rather doubt, though, that any child of her age would dream up an opportunity to not get presents. But, when we explained to her how there were children much less fortunate than she, and how she could do something to help them, Gabriella immediately got it."
Indeed, he proudly reports, his daughter's native generosity ("or competitiveness") got so engaged that she was soon fired up to donate as much money as possible. Proceeds from the party totaled nearly $1,500.
If you're thinking, "Oh boy, that could only happen in O.C.," you're mistaken.
Involving children in fundraising and community outreach efforts is, in fact, a newly popular priority at America's social service organizations such as United Way. An interactive activity called the Giving Game is currently sweeping the Midwest, with online participants numbering in the tens of thousands. And, a variety of community efforts targeted toward youngsters, some hardly old enough to be elementary school students, are sprouting up across the Baltimore area.
At the Stadium School, for example, a group of eighth-graders has organized an after-school art program for children in the sixth grade called Youth Dreamers. (Their latest art project? Photography.) Youth Dreamers is funded by a grant from the Youth as Resources Program, which is, in turn, managed by a group of only slightly older children and overseen by the Baltimore Community Foundation.
One of the nation's largest commitments to Habitat for Humanity, the affordable housing construction project associated with former President Jimmy Carter since 1984, is under way at the Park School. Park students have raised $50,000 in the last five years, are currently building a sixth house in the Baltimore area and are committed to completing four more, for a total of 10, in what is a decade-long effort.
Raising funds and construction work are only a part of her responsibilities, said Jen Webber, 16, a junior at the Park School who is a student leader on the project. More important still is the successful induction of younger children into the program who can carry on after Webber and her peers graduate.
"We talk a lot about legacy. We give lower school assemblies to children in kindergarten through sixth grade where we try to pass along the message of philanthropy," Webber explained. "We talk about what Habitat is, and say it's for people and kids who need homes. Actually, we don't have to encourage them all that much. Once they get a sense they can help, they are so enthusiastic! Even the youngest kids say, 'You want me to raise money? Fine. That's good.' "
Charity is cool
Think of it as the upside of peer pressure. Children want to become involved with things they perceive as cool, which is often enough defined by what older kids are doing. Thus, while kids may be tempted to experiment with drugs, drinking or shoplifting, the power of buzz -- friends talking to their friends and saying "I am doing this volunteer work, do you want to help me out?" -- can create a positive ripple effect.
Before a cousin nominated her to the board of Youth as Resources, Christina Stewart, 18, who graduated in 2005 from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, can't recall ever doing anything more civic-minded than participating in a blood drive.
"It was a big change for me and it was very exciting," she said. "How often do kids my age get to do something like this? Working with younger children, I developed leadership training skills and other opportunities opened up to me. Here I was doing something good for others, and it ended up being good for me, too."
Motivating youngsters like Stewart and Webber is now a priority of philanthropic organizations that have been struggling to find ways to attract new recruits. A concerted effort to target teenagers and even younger people is under way because research shows that the generation ahead of them -- sometimes referred to as Generation X, or those born between 1965 and 1981 -- donate significantly less money than do their parents or grandparents.
A 2003 study by Richard Steinberg and Mark Wilhelm, scholars at Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, looked at data provided by 7,406 households nationally about their giving habits in 2000. It found that only slightly more than one-half -- 53 percent -- of Generation X-headed households made donations of $25 or more. This number is far below the percentage of donors among households headed by baby boomers (75 percent) or those born before World War II (80 percent).
Experts in charitable giving say that younger people are not less generous than their forebears; rather they have different ideas of how to give. They tend, for instance, to be suspicious of large, bureaucracy-laden organizations. Rather than write a check to the American Cancer Society, they prefer volunteer activities that offer physical activities and the opportunity to make social connections. Thus, many charities no longer focus so much on financial donations per se, but talk instead about the "Three T's" -- time, talent and treasure.
"God knows, we are still fund-raisers," said Patrick Smith, communications director for the United Way of Central Maryland. "Yet, we want young people to know earlier in life that UW is not only a way to donate money, but to get personally connected to charities in their neighborhood or around the world."
Smith cites the popularity of the Storm Corps, a first-ever alliance that the United Way made this year with MTV, in which a group of 100 young people from all over the country -- including two from Maryland -- traveled to Mississippi and Alabama during the week of March 11-18, to help rebuild neighborhoods devastated by hurricanes.
"It was a cool idea as an alternative spring break, doing volunteer work, rather than going to Panama City and practice drinking beer though your nose," Smith said.
That even the youngest children can be activists is hardly news to Denny Doherty, founder and president of Chesapeake Fund Raising Inc., a company in Lutherville that arranges fund-raising drives of candy, cookies, pizza and funnel cakes at schools and churches throughout Maryland.
"The premise of this whole business started about 50 years ago. And that was, no one could say 'no' to a kid with a candy bar," he said. Over the past two decades, however, what's most changed, Doherty said, is that children today have a greater awareness of what's going on in the world, are choosier about the things they'll become involved with and, generally, are much more savvy.
"I was at Hampden Elementary School the other day," he said. "A lady was setting out salads for lunch in the cafeteria, and a little boy, he couldn't have been more than 5, asks her, 'What's the house dressing?' " This new, "give it your way" attitude is coming along at a time of unprecedented global need, noted Jamie Caplis, director of development for the Baltimore Community Foundation.
"When one looks at 9 / 11, Hurricane Katrina or the earthquakes in Pakistan, you can see there's been a huge outcry and outpouring of concern from people of all ages. These events are so shocking, so unimaginably big, that even little kids are aware of them and want to do something," she said. "This is becoming a large concern for parents. They want to get their children involved, they see these things as 'teachable moments,' but they are unclear about how young is too young."
It's a topic on which there is considerable debate. Dwight Burlingame, associate executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, believes an opportune time to begin encouraging generosity is when a child is aged 9 or 10, and safely in between wanting only to hoard toys for themselves and beginning to understand that socialization is a process of sharing with others.
No sooner had he said this, however, than Burlingame also mentioned a recent study he'd seen of 40 children who were 18 months old. "Adults would walk by the child and pretend to accidentally drop a book. Most of the children would try to help pick up the book and give it back to the adult. When the adults slammed the book down, however, no child helped pick it up."
While the study isn't conclusive, it suggests not only there may be an altruistic or helping gene, but that children take cues from an adult. "When it appears there is genuinely someone in need," Burlingame said, "the desire of a child to help can come at even a very early age."
This may explain the roaring success of the Giving Game in Michigan, Indiana and other states throughout the Midwest. Based on the Pay It Forward concept that was turned into a somewhat mawkish movie of the same name in 2000 (starring Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment), this game has special cards with traceable ID numbers. Players can visit a Web site and monitor how their acts of kindness have moved on and affected other lives. "Giving is an exciting rush!" shouts the advertising copy at givinggame.org.
More than a "rush," youthful charity is fundamental to the survival of society, believes Marc Terrill, president of The Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
"I am very concerned about the trend towards individualism and away from community responsibility," he said. "Youth need to be acculturated to the idea of being responsible to one another, and the sooner the better."
Putting this wish into practice in his own home, Terrill and his wife instituted a Friday night ritual called Tzedakah (a derivation from the Hebrew root Tzade-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness) in which their children are all encouraged to place money in a special box, which is passed around the dinner table while the family discusses how funds collected will be used to help other people.
"My youngest children, the twins, are three and a half. If we are traveling, and we don't do this ceremony on Friday night, they know something's different and they ask about Tzedakah," Terrill said. "I like to believe that altruism is innate, but we have a responsibility as parents to encourage it."
7 simple steps to inspire kids' generosity:
Be a role model by being a volunteer and a donor yourself.
Show children the way -- take them with you to volunteer; talk to them about your donations.
Make giving a year-round project, not just something you do at the holidays.
It's never too early, or too late to start. The earlier you teach the habit of giving, though, the easier it is to sustain.
Let children decide what projects to support with their time and money.
Teach them to manage money.
Praise their philanthropic efforts.
-- Excerpted from The Giving Family: Teaching Our Children to Help Others, by Susan Price.