University of Chicago students cultivate next generation of philanthropists

University of Chicago student Will Fernandez pauses between classes on Feb. 4, 2015. Fernandez co-founded a group that teaches high school students how to become philanthropists devoted to addressing social problems.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

University of Chicago student Will Fernandez pauses between classes on Feb. 4, 2015. Fernandez co-founded a group that teaches high school students how to become philanthropists devoted to addressing social problems.

One day when first year college student Will Fernandez and two of his friends were sitting around their dining room table at the University of Chicago, they came up with an idea for creating the next generation of leaders. Fernandez, now a fourth year history major at the university, went on to co-found Chicago Youth Philanthropy Group, which is currently teaching King College Prep students how to resolve community issues with philanthropic projects.

“Everyone making a difference in the philanthropic sector is usually mid-career or late-career and the kids who are affected by (the social problems) every day don’t have a voice,” Fernandez said. “So if we can give these kids a voice, we will be making a tangible difference here in the city–not only in terms of the projects itself, but by making a generation of students and citizens here in Chicago understand that they can make a difference on any issue they care about if they put hard work into it.”

Fernandez and the other co-founders decided to teach their philanthropic curriculum at King College Prep after Hadiya Pendleton, a student at the school, was fatally shot in January 2013. She would have graduated this year. To honor her memory, the seniors at the school have dedicated their philanthropic work towards combating gang violence and have named their classroom’s foundation after her.

What are the goals of Chicago Youth Philanthropy Group?

We’re a non-profit, student-run organization based at the University of Chicago that is focused on igniting the passion for community service in kids through philanthropic investment. And that means we help go into schools and take the kids through a yearlong curriculum where they can identify issues that are uniquely theirs. These are issues that they choose themselves that affect them and their community every single day. As the year goes on, they start to learn how to run fundraisers, how to write grants to raise the capital needed to make investments in their community. At the end of the year they end up giving that money to an organization that affects that issue. We have around 150 students this year who go through this process and learn how to be activists who can make a difference on an issue where previously they were never given the opportunity to engage or work on.

Tell me more about your reasons for starting this organization?

It was started by me and two of my housemates and we had been involved in a variety of service projects here at the university and in the South Side, but we never felt that we were totally on board with the mission because there were a few things we figured that we always wanted to change, but we were obviously young at heart and didn’t have the leadership positions or experience. On top of that, we felt that all the programs that we could have done were never focused on training the youth for something they could utilize down the road in their everyday lives.  So for us, what we decided to do was come up with an idea that was more impactful for these students as a whole.

How do you teach philanthropy to high school students?

The first goal is to let these kids know what philanthropy is. Many of them don’t even know what the word means. So we try to break it down very simply and explain the difference between philanthropy and charity, what the historical significance of philanthropy is—the significance in religious institutions, governmental institutions and society in general. We go from there to helping these kids find issues they are most passionate about. We ask them to pick one issue and from there we group the kids who want to work on similar issues—whether it’s gun violence prevention, obesity, food deserts, all of these different issues that these kids can have a personal relationship with. At the end of the first trimester, the teams present their work to their classmates and provide a clear vision of what it is that they want to do. We then walk them through what it means to be a non-profit, what does it mean to be a foundation and how do you raise money, how do you write grants and requests for proposals. The third part is focused on combining the two—the issue and the non-profit foundation world—where they start reviewing different non-profits working on that issue. They interview the non-profits, as any foundation would, they coordinate with each other, evaluate all of the options on the table and then donate their [fundraising proceeds] to any non-profit they feel is the best deliverer on that issue.

Where are you headed as an organization?

We’re always focused on getting more students, making sure that the program gets more advanced. Our long-term plan is to get four schools into the program and three schools next year, followed by five after that. And hopefully get ten schools eventually. The goal is to get all schools involved, no matter where you are, what your background is. Right now, each classroom gives away $1,000, but our goal is to get students to pick their issues and come together at an annual conference where students from all across Chicago come with their community’s issues at hand and come together as a Chicago Youth.

Why philanthropy? 

For me, the thing about teaching philanthropy and why it is important is that it focuses on civic duty. It is more than individuals just caring about themselves, and if that is something we can instill as a value in someone, let alone an entire classroom at a school, then I think we can make a very big difference in society. If we were to lose that philanthropic sense of duty, I would really be disappointed in where we end up as a society because we would be so focused on the individual rather than the community as a whole. For me, it is about community engagement and doing for others what you would want done for yourself.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.