GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Clad in T-shirts, jeans, cargo pants and the occasional wooden bead necklace, the half-dozen teen-agers seated around the cherry conference table look more like they belong in a Gap clothing ad than a board room.
But the Grand Rapids Foundation Youth Grant Committee means business: The high school students have nearly $80,000 to give to charities that help young people. More than three dozen nonprofit groups have applied for the money, including a summer program that wants $15,000 to help disadvantaged children.
''I still don't understand how you are going to use this money,'' 17-year-old Jamal Chilton, one of the committee's co-chairs, says during an interview with the summer program's directors. He repeatedly asks, ''Can you explain it again?''
Such questions are on the rise. From California to New York, charities are increasingly looking to young people to raise money and help decide what organizations to support.
Their motives range from a desire to get a younger perspective to concerns that, without training programs, charities won't have the leadership they need to carry them through the 21st century. The hope is that teaching teen-agers about philanthropy will make them more likely to get involved and open their checkbooks as they get older.
The Council of Michigan Foundations estimates there are 300 youth grant-making programs nationwide.
Some of the programs are self-funded. Others fund only programs for young people or programs administered by young people. Some partner young people with adults. But all the efforts share two key qualities.
First, they allow young people a direct say in deciding where charitable money should go. Second, they tend to focus on recruiting students from varied racial, socio-economic and academic backgrounds, including those who aren't already school leaders, in hopes of making their groups as representative as possible of the community.
In Rochester, N.Y., six teen-agers and two adult advisers hand out $10,000, in grants of up to $750, to fund programs run by their peers.
''In the history of charitable organizations, young people who came to us were often viewed as problems needing to be addressed, as kids-at-risk,'' says Jennifer Leonard, who heads the Rochester Area Community Foundation.
''In the last 10 years, there's been a large mind-shift,'' she says. ''That mind-shift really looks at young people as potential sources of great strength for themselves, their families and communities.''
The Community Foundation Silicon Valley in California recruits high school students from the communities of East Palo Alto and East San Jose, which border some of the country's most affluent neighborhoods. This year the Youth In Philanthropy committee gave away about $20,000 -- about 15 percent of which they raised themselves -- to youth-initiated projects.
''The whole concept of philanthropy is pretty new to most of them,'' says adviser Julie Dean. ''They're tough grant-makers. By the time they get to the end, they're asking really good questions about groups' motivations, grilling them on their budget. They learn a lot of critical thinking skills.''
In Indianapolis, the Youth As Resources program pairs teen-agers with adults on grant-making boards and fund raising efforts. Director Paula Allen describes the effort as a great way to educate young people and enlighten adults about youths' needs.
''When you have youth on the board it absolutely fire up adults. Youth has a lot of enthusiasm. They haven't been spoiled by experience -- everything is possible,'' Allen says.
The Grand Rapids' youth committee, which is fully funded by its community foundation, is one of 80-plus such groups in Michigan that grew out of grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Participation in one of those groups as a high school student inspired Jennifer Zeisler of Alanson, Mich., to plan a career in philanthropy.
''Without this, it would have never occurred to me to even look at the nonprofit world,'' says Zeisler, now a 20-year-old college student studying communications.
This year, the Grand Rapids committee approved about 13 grants. But the summer program targeting disadvantaged youth wasn't one of them. The students decided they didn't know enough about the project's budget and that the directors hadn't adequately answered their questions.
Seventeen-year-old Kelsey Haynes, the group's other co-chair, says she and the other 40 or so committee members feel a tremendous responsibility to make sure the grants they give out are well-spent and clearly benefit young people.
''It's opened my heart to giving more money when, in the future, I have a job and money to give,'' she says. ''You learn a lot about others when you do something like this.''
On the Net: Community Foundation Silicon Valley: http://www.cfsv.org
Council of Michigan Foundations: http://www.cmif.org
Youth As Resources: http://www.yar.org
W.K. Kellogg Foundation: http://www.wkkf.org
Rochester Area Community Foundation: http://www.racf.org
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