Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Focus on Giving, Part 2--The Harmony/Main Street Experiment

Helpful Hints from Harmony

“Life is Good When You Live in Harmony”

(A word of explanation: I live in a little place called Harmony, Florida, where life is a bit slower and nature is right outside our door. I’m also familiar with another Harmony, which isn’t a place at all but a way of being. This year I’d like to share 12 simple lessons I’ve learned from my time in Harmony.)

Helpful Hint #3: Focus on Giving, Part 2—The Harmony/Main Street Experiment

Last month I wrote that the happiest people on earth consistently give of themselves to serve the needs of others. I noted the sweet and ironic arithmetic of mindful giving: that both the giver and the receiver are added to and edified by the process.

I’d like to continue that theme in this month’s article by telling you about an experiment I have been conducting with Ryan Ponsford.

Ryan is a financial advisor from Carlsbad, California. He’s a creative genius as well as a generous giver, and I’ve learned much from him.

Ryan and I both work with high net worth families. We’ve each observed that one of the most effective ways to impact the often-jaded lives of affluent teenagers and young adults is through hands-on involvement in philanthropic giving and community service.

That observation led us to a question: Could the lives of teenagers and young adults from "Main Street" be similarly changed by experiencing the giving side of philanthropy, by becoming "philanthropists in training?"

To answer that question, Ryan and I designed a rather sophisticated experiment. We envisioned a process that would bring together small teams of students, their classroom teacher, a financial/philanthropic mentor, generous donors, and front-line charities, all of whom would benefit from this collaboration.

We created a lively ten-week curriculum designed to give young people a real-world immersion in smart charitable giving. The course of study allows students to identify their philanthropic passions; learn group dynamics by working in teams; research and evaluate local charities; raise some of their own money so they have some “skin in the game;” interview donors, volunteers, board members, and employees of charitable organizations; and make a meaningful donation to the non-profits they selected.

Next we formed a 501(c)(3) organization called Main Street Philanthropy. Its purpose is to develop and inspire the next generation of philanthropists by helping teenagers and young adults experience the joy of giving and serving. See www.MainStreetPhil.org.

We contacted generous clients and asked them if they would provide money so each student in our programs could give away a few hundred dollars of real money as a “grant” to a qualified charity of his or her choice in their community. They agreed to fund the experiment.

We also approached forward-thinking teachers and school administrators in Central Florida and Southern California, seeking a laboratory for our project. They said yes. They recognized that this approach just might be a catalyst for an enriching educational experience going well beyond prepping for the state exams.

Then it was time to introduce our fledgling program to actual students. We wondered how teenagers in today’s texting-video game culture would react to our model.

I’m excited to report that our ideas really grabbed their attention and captured their imaginations. Here’s how one student at Harmony High described her introduction to Main Street Philanthropy in her blog:
Setting the scene: a wide-eyed teacher walks into the room with an excited air about him. The teacher, Mr. Hansen, exclaims to our class that we are about to take an incomparable charitable journey.
The class as a whole says nothing, but just stares at him, awaiting more information about this “philanthropic masterpiece of a program” that he seems so eager to begin. Expecting to hear the mundane community service ploy, there isn't an awful lot of excitement. However, instead of going on to glorify another dull service project, Mr. Hansen explains a brand-new concept — Main Street Philanthropy.
The basis of Main Street Philanthropy is that generous donors give money to students for charitable donations. The students learn to donate with knowledge and come across more charities in their local area. Our class was to be the pilot in this area. Let the pressure ensue.
The class as a whole was in awe (which doesn't happen often because OBVIOUSLY teenagers know everything about everything); it was such a new, fresh, and modern way to participate in philanthropic activity. Instead of just being bystanders without the means to be active in donation, we, as high-schoolers had the ability to affect the progress of a group of our own choosing.
Launching the program was exciting and teaching was a blast! Ryan and I loved our roles as philanthropic mentors to the imaginative and energetic students in our respective schools. Their passion for discovering and supporting local charities whose missions aligned with theirs was infectious. We relished each of the weekly sessions.

One of the tools we used in the program was a set of 20 cards visually portraying areas of charitable opportunity or concern. We called them “Make A Difference” cards, but the students quickly dubbed them “MAD Cards.” (My talented daughter Elisabeth from Wilson, North Carolina, created the beautiful artwork for them. Thanks, Elisabeth!)

These cards helped them think about what causes they wanted to get involved with and then helped them identify local organizations that work to address those issues. The simple process of selecting their top three choices out of 20 had an amazing impact on the students. One girl wrote:
My experience using the MAD (Make a Difference) cards was great. I noticed something I didn't have clear in my mind, and that was the urge and desire to help others and contribute to making a difference in the world.
Another student had a similar experience:
I learned from the MAD cards that every single human can make a difference in someone’s life in a positive way. I learned that a lot of other people need help in our world. I learned that I have the ability to make a difference in someone’s life.
We discovered within these young people a deep yearning to make a difference in their communities AND to also make a difference within themselves. One of our students, writing about her hopes for the program said:
I hope to gain a sense of selflessness and to learn more of how I could give back to people who need more than I do. As cheesy as this sounds, I hope I become a better person. Sometimes I feel a bit selfish in certain aspects of my life so I hope I can make a change.
As the weeks progressed, we observed an amazing growth of understanding, maturity, and responsibility in our classes. Their blogs contained statements like this:
We have begun to learn what it truly feels like to give, along with the most responsible way of doing so. Through this project I hope to gain a better understanding of the way in which charities function, as well as a taste of what effect I can have on my community. I believe that this program will also give me a better understanding of the value of a dollar and teach me the importance of supporting our community.
And this:
I cannot wait until Mr. Scott returns this week to continue on with the process, to gain experiences that I would not encounter without the help of Main Street Philanthropy. I want to inspire my peers to help others without an expectation of something in return. I want to make a difference in the community, hopefully being a catalyst in the start of something incredible.
The climax of each program was the day our students presented checks to their favorite charitable organizations in our communities. Our donors sometimes joined the group to see first-hand the results of their generosity. There were lots of tears, and a profound sense of satisfaction. As one young participant commented, "I never knew giving away money could be so hard . . . or so much fun!"

The money given to worthy local charities made a big difference in our communities. But just as big, or maybe even bigger, was the impact in the students’ lives. Consider this observation by a teenager wise beyond her years:
When you change your focus from self to others, you see the positive results of charitable giving. This reminded me of the impact that philanthropy can have on not only the cause being donated to, but also the person donating. Through this program I have been able to see both sides of that impact as we work towards the educated donating of our time and money.
As Ryan and I talked with students and teachers, reviewed student blogs, and evaluated follow-up questionnaires, we could see that THOUGHTFUL GIVING PRODUCES PROFOUND TRANSFORMATION. Minds are opened, possibilities are explored, imaginations are ignited, help is given, hearts are touched, and lives are focused and energized.
In the midst of the program, one young man described the changes he saw in his classmates and felt within himself.
My heart truly beats to put a smile on a hungry child's face or a blanket over a cold woman's shoulder. I am very thankful to be involved in Main Street Philanthropy, as it will benefit everyone involved. There is a heartbeat drumming up in this team to help those who cannot provide for themselves. It is a very beautiful thing happening at Harmony High School, courtesy of Main Street Philanthropy.
Ryan and I learned that “becoming a philanthropist” created a spark of hope, engagement, and excitement in the members of our classes. Our students developed greater confidence, accountability, and direction. They grew in their understanding of group dynamics, leadership, and important financial concepts. Our experiment showed that WHEN WE GIVE, IT CHANGES US!

One of the secrets to the success of this approach is that it first allows each student to discover their passion and then empowers them to act on that discovery. The genius of the Main Street Philanthropy program is that it embodies the wisdom expressed by Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

The results of our experiment were everything we could have dreamed they would be. One of our students described his initial skepticism and subsequent excitement with Main Street Philanthropy:
When I first heard of this off-the-wall idea I thought, “This can't be real,” but I am here to tell you that it is! I never thought I would get this much learning experience out of this program, not because I had low expectations but because it has just blown my mind away!
Pretty high praise from a teenager, don’t you think?
* * *

Looking ahead, Ryan and I intend to create a Main Street Philanthropy “movement” that will change students’ and families’ lives coast to coast and will produce a new generation of thoughtful, generous givers. We believe we need more philanthropists on Main Street as well as on Park Avenue, and we’ve found the way to do that.

Within the next year, we plan to recruit 100 “Main Street Philanthropy Ambassadors,” who share our vision of changing the world by changing the hearts of teenagers and young adults. This initial cadre of MSP Ambassadors will be an elite group who are ready to make a mark in their community, are looking for more energy and purpose in their work, and want to help turn today’s students into tomorrow’s philanthropists and community volunteer leaders.

We envision the role of these MSP Ambassadors this way:
  • They are experienced and successful professionals who step away from their own business for an hour or two a week to work with a classroom full of “philanthropists in training.” • They draw inspiration from the youthful enthusiasm of their students.
  • They understand that thoughtful giving produces profound transformation: it changes the lives of individual students and then the culture of an entire school and community.
  • They rub shoulders with the “movers and shakers” in their community as they identify teaching opportunities, round up resources, and guide students, teachers, donors, and parents to deliver much-needed funds to local front-line organizations.
  • They recognize that being innovative, generous, and well-rounded as they reach out and give back to their community will help their own business to grow organically.
  • They benefit from collaborating with like-minded professionals all across the country to achieve one single audacious goal: to develop and inspire the next generation of philanthropists by helping students experience the joy of giving and serving.
In addition to joining with 100 like-minded professionals, we also intend within the next year to raise enough money to endow this movement with long-term sustainability.We have been given a generous boost in this quest by a donor family who has pledged that for the next 90 days, they will match every dollar donated to Main Street Philanthropy with $1.50, and for the following 90 days they will match donations dollar for dollar. That should get us off and running.

We know we’ve got a lot of toil ahead of us, but this promises to be the adventure of a lifetime. If you want to join us in our journey and you’re not afraid of hard work, I’d love to hear from you. Start by visiting our website,www.MainStreetPhil.org and then give me a call at 407-593-2386.

We are starting to enjoy some wonderful publicity. See the article in the Orlando Sentinel by David Breen, “Harmony High Students Learn How Charity Can Make a Difference,http://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/education/os-harmony-high-charity-program-20130403,0,6532950.story.

In addition, Ryan and I have been invited to speak on April 25 at the annual convention of the International Association of Advisors in Philanthropy in Las Vegas. http://www.advisorsinphilanthropy.org/events/event_details.asp?id=282598. I hope to see you there.

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