In 2011, Dr. Robert Ross was starting to feel like he was in a bubble.
He’d been at the helm of the California Endowment since 2000. Most information came to him in the form of weighty white papers, polished PowerPoints and detailed memos. Feedback on the foundation’s work and strategy, even if from outsiders, tended to be carefully curated before it landed on his desk.
“I was aware not only of the privileged position I occupied outside my organization, but also of how sheltered I was as a chief executive within my organization,” Ross wrote in a 2019 blog post.
Driven by this sensation, as well as staff recommendations, the funder’s growing focus on youth leadership, and the launch of its Building Healthy Communities campaign, Ross worked with his staff to create what experts say may be the only body of its kind in philanthropy—a youth council tasked specifically with advising the foundation’s president.
Now in its ninth year and seeking a new batch of leaders, the California Endowment’s President’s Youth Council remains a rarity among foundations, but has had a powerful influence within the institution. It’s broadened Ross and his team’s understanding of what the endowment’s focus area, health, looks like in the day-to-day lives of young people, pushing them to engage on issues like incarceration, school discipline and youth leadership.
And it’s one of many examples of the far-reaching potential of getting young people involved at the highest levels of philanthropy.
How the Youth Council Changed the California Endowment
“From the outset, young people started to give a different version of reality to the endowment,” said Albert Maldonado, senior program manager at the California Endowment, who works directly with the council. (Ross was unavailable for an interview as, sadly, his wife recently passed away.)
It started with a discussion about how youth are disciplined. The endowment had planned to focus its new youth grantmaking portfolio on school meals, school-based health centers and access to services. But council members’ feedback changed their course.
“Young people actually said, ‘Stop kicking us out of school… once we’re kicked out of school, we’re ending up in the juvenile justice system,’” Maldonado said. “It was a totally new way for the endowment to understand the issue of health through young people.”
More recently, the council has been a force in pushing the endowment to take on mass incarceration, contributing to initiatives like the “Schools not Prisons” campaign and Ross’ 2017 call to end the practice of youth incarceration in California.
“Fifteen years ago, the endowment didn’t do work in the criminal justice space. We’re now knee-deep in it,” Maldonado said. The council, which released a wide-ranging, 20-page action plan in January, is now pushing the endowment to work on community alternatives to 911 for emergencies, he said.
For Lupe Renteria Salome, a current fellow on the council, the impact is clear. “We have the opportunity to keep Dr. Ross and TCE informed about what’s really happening on the ground,” she said. “For us to be able to really tell the stories and bring those young people with us, and talk to Dr. Ross, we influence where these pots of money go.”
Michigan and the Emergence of Youth Councils
Scholars date the rise of youth councils to 1988, when the Council of Michigan Foundations approached the national funder in their back yard, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in the hope of securing challenge grants to get more people involved with their local community foundations. Kellogg agreed to the plan, but they added a fateful requirement: money would go first to youth councils.
Over the next four years, $35 million flowed from Kellogg to Michigan youth councils and community foundations, seeding a level of engagement in philanthropy among young people that rivals any state in the nation.
There are some 86 youth endowments at community foundations across Michigan, and some 1,500 youth serve on their related youth councils each year, according to CMF’s 2018 census of the councils. Overall, the state has 50% more of these councils than much-larger California, which has the second-highest number in the country, based on data from YouthGives.org.
Michigan’s partnership with Kellogg was one of several forces that led to a boom in youth councils and youth grantmaking around the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s, including efforts by the National Crime Prevention Council and the Lilly Endowment, according to research by Sheryl Seller, associate director of the Sillerman Center of Philanthropy.
The concept, and Michigan’s efforts, have attracted some very high-profile fans.
“I think systematizing philanthropy, service, and then letting more kids—this Michigan thing, I love this—letting more young people decide how the money they raise is given out, I think, is a very, very good thing to do,” said President Bill Clinton during the 1999 White House Conference on Philanthropy.
Following those early boom years, youth councils have had “slow and steady growth,” particularly in the last five years, said Sarina Dayal, an associate of global partnerships and projects at Candid. And as philanthropy ventures slowly into democratizing giving through participatory grantmaking—where funders give affected communities the power to choose where grants go—youth grantmaking stands out.
“It’s one of the largest examples of participatory grantmaking, both in terms of number of programs and visibility worldwide,” wrote Jen Bokoff, director of stakeholder engagement at Candid, in an email. She did note, however, that not all youth grantmaking programs should be considered participatory.
How the Endowment’s Council Works
The California Endowment’s youth council typically has 12 members, who range in age from 17 to 25 and serve for three years. The foundation advertises widely, and youth from anywhere in California are welcome to apply, but preference is given to applicants from certain regions: Central Valley, Inland Empire, Eastern Coachella Valley, Del Norte, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Central Coast and Orange County.
The council is highly representative of the diversity of California and communities where the endowment funds. In addition to racial, ethnic and gender diversity, it includes immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and youth with experience in the criminal justice system, among other identities and experiences. Members are organizers focused on issues from youth prison to recreational spaces, as well as mentors, educators and aspiring surgeons.
“It’s been an incredible learning opportunity for me,” said Renteria Salome, who said the relationships she’s built are the most valuable part of her time on the council. “I realized that I wasn’t alone while doing community organizing. I met young people who were also fighting and organizing.”
In a study the foundation commissioned in 2016, members were almost universally positive about the experience, with 100% of respondents agreeing that Ross took their feedback seriously, that the council contributes to the Endowment’s efforts to improve health, and that the experience helped them grow as leaders.
The council meets for quarterly three-day retreats in Los Angeles and across the state, and Ross clears his schedule to spend most of Friday and Saturday with the council during those weekends.
Maldonado noted there have been “growing pains,” both in forming the council and in communication between staff and the council’s members. As Renteria Salome puts it, “Young people will always push for more, and want more, and dream big, and have a huge vision. Foundations, institutions, adults must be ready for that, and understanding of what it means to be in partnership.”
Council members have provided Ross an unfiltered perspective on the issues facing communities where the endowment is funding. That’s meant a window into the trauma, loss and violence that can strike their lives.
In 2017, Brandon Harrison, a 20-year-old activist who had been on the endowment’s youth council for a year, was gunned down as he left a birthday party in his hometown of Stockton, California. Other members of the council have family members who have been deported; some have suffered violence at the hands of police, or been kicked out of their homes due to their sexual orientation.
“If Brandon was around right now, he probably would be on this call,” Maldonado told me, describing the young activist as an “incredible leader of leaders” and noting the endowment had recently established an award in his name. “It’s a reminder of the reality of our young people.”
Maldonado says the foundation is now focused on transitioning the council into a formal, lasting element of the institution that can not only reach beyond Ross’ tenure, but have influence beyond the CEO.
Youth as Advisors vs. Grantmakers
The California Endowment’s youth council is unique in that it directly advises its president, but it’s also different than most in that it plays a strict advisory role. Youth councils that make grants outnumber advisory groups by about five to one, according to data from YouthGiving.org, though Dayal says the difference could be as much as double that.
“Because foundations have the luxury of taking risk, I would prefer the young people to have some control of where those dollars go,” said Seller. “But we know foundations don’t like to take risk, or give up their power.”
The amounts given out are usually quite low. Four out of five grantmaking councils give out less than $25,000 a year, according to YouthGiving.org. In Michigan, which has more councils than any other state, youth are responsible for granting a total of $1.5 million in grants annually.
“If the measure of success is the size of the endowments controlled by young people, I think it misses the point,” said Kyle Caldwell, president of the Council of Michigan Foundations. CMF has its own youth council that, like its parent entity, is focused on supporting other youth councils in the state.
Like at the California Endowment, grantmaking youth councils can influence institutional decisions. But they also create leaders. Michigan now has three former philanthropy youth council members serving as presidents of community foundations, he said. Other former members serve in the state legislature, within state government, and beyond. And roughly one-third of community foundations draw members of their boards from their youth councils.
“It has ensured that community philanthropy in Michigan is informed by the future generation,” Caldwell said. “That leadership is now serving as changemakers.”
Dayal of Candid is another example. She served on the youth board of a family foundation in California in middle and high school. “That was my introduction to philanthropy. I didn’t intend to work in the field, but it was definitely an influence,” she said.
The Future of Youth Councils in a Pandemic-Altered World
“I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with foundations across the country that are curious about launching something similar,” said Maldonado of the endowment’s youth council.
Yet in a world turned upside-down by COVID-19, when many foundations are focused on simply getting dollars out the door to their communities, it’s a tougher proposition. Few foundations can spare the time and attention necessary for a thoughtful program. Yet, for those who have them, it’s worth the investment.
“We learned from them. We learned how to adapt,” said Caldwell, citing his own organization’s youth council, which quickly shifted operations online amid the pandemic. “That’s the mode of problem solving that we all need to adopt.”
The endowment’s team agrees. They’re planning to add members of their youth council to the institution’s COVID-19 response team.