Teach Your Children (How to Give) Well

New programs train students to do their homework before donating to charities


Rosie, a student at the independent Dragon School in Oxford, may be only 13 years old, but she already knows more about charitable giving than many adults in the U.K.

She recently sifted through the Oxfordshire Association for the Blind’s accounts to determine the U.K. charity’s annual income and what percentage of that income actually goes to its mission. She wanted to make sure it was a worthy cause before deciding to entrust it with the biggest donation of her life so far—£60 ($94).

Despite her tender age, Rosie is taking part in a program that teaches her how to think like aBill Gates or a Warren Buffett when handing out cash for a good cause. Similar projects have sprung up at other schools across the U.K. and North America, inculcating students into a philanthropic zeitgeist that some say eventually will force charities to become more efficient and more accountable.

These initiatives “can help create a cultural change,” says Ben Allcock, a fund-raiser for the Oxfordshire Association for the Blind, which aims to help those with sight loss live independent lives. “There’s a great potential for people to give much more intelligently.”

At Rosie’s school, students have been learning about charitable giving since roughly the age of 12 as part of a program called Philanthropy in Schools. The project, which has been in place for about three years, was originally developed by the Dragon School alongside the Big Give, an umbrella organization that collates information from 7,000 charities around the world.

Students are given a voucher provided by a sponsor and asked to donate it to the charity they feel most deserves their support.

“I had no idea how many different charities there were and now understand how hard it is to choose,” says Rosie. “I also did not realize that you have to read into it with so much depth. I had never thought about looking at the annual income” of a charity, she says.

Class divide: At the 1937 Eton vs. Harrow match at Lord's cricket ground in London

Class divide: At the 1937 Eton vs. Harrow match at Lord’s cricket ground in London GETTY IMAGES

Gradually, more schools in the U.K., particularly those that cater to students from privileged backgrounds, are joining this project.

The Dragon School, which boasts Harry Potter actress Emma Watson, actor Hugh Laurie and retired tennis player Tim Henman as alumni, is molding the minds of pupils who are likely to be wealthy when they grow up, says Danny Gill, director of social impact at the school, which charges boarders more than £20,000 ($31,000) a year.

“We are very privileged economically,” says Mr. Gill. “I want my pupils to start thinking about this: If they were giving a pound, how much of that would they want to fund the project? These are the sophisticated givers of the future.”

Teachers in the U.K. aren’t the only ones pushing for a reconsideration of what it means to give from an early age. In the U.S., the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative has been running similar programs for a year. Like the Philanthropy in Schools project, the U.S. program aims to give secondary school students hands-on experience in charitable giving, says Marni Schecter of the Toronto-based Toskan Casale Foundation, which developed the program.

“Students come together to study the social needs of their communities and then spot a local charity that is addressing a particular problem,” Ms. Schecter says. Students then compete to have the best presentation in front of judges to win money to award to their chosen charity.

Ms. Schecter says projects like these shouldn’t be targeted only to children of affluent backgrounds.

Her program “works regardless of geography, and it has been successful in affluent or middle-class schools. Even kids with poorer backgrounds have taken part in the program and have gained skills that they then carry for life,” she says.

It is too early to say for sure whether such programs will encourage a shift in the way future generations approach philanthropy, but some seem to think they will.

“I think we will see a generation of more socially engaged individuals,” says Alex Reynolds of the Institute for Philanthropy, a provider of donor education for wealthy individuals. “Pupils are being entrusted with real money, which empowers them to have a major impact on real people’s lives.”