Students learn about grant making and allocate $25,000 to five local non-profits

Stevenson parent Iva Winton P ’24 was looking for ways to cultivate student leadership on the Pebble Beach campus when she landed on the idea of a philanthropy project: she’d give a group of high school students $25,000 from her family’s foundation, and the students would be fully in charge of giving the money away. Winton’s only proviso was that the students must choose nonprofits on the Monterey Peninsula.

“First you have to take care of yourself,” says Winton, who moved to the Peninsula with her husband Bryan Hillstrom ’69 and their two children 14 years ago, “and then we really need to look out in the county we live in—that’s where we can do our best work.”

So just before COVID-19 hit the shores of the U.S., 11 students from grades 9-12 applied to become part of a group called the Philanthropy Project, and all were chosen. They knew that learning how to give away a large sum of money was going to require a commitment larger than that of Stevenson’s average club, but they had no idea how impactful the project would be on their lives and the lives of others in the greater community.

Grace Ingram ’20, one of the project’s four senior leaders, says, “Mostly my idea about philanthropy was like, ‘OK, you have money and then you give it to someone.’ But that’s not the case at all.”

With the help of Reunion and Class Giving Officer Corine Mink ’87 and Director of Annual Giving Allie Ladio, the students devised a mission statement focused on youth and families in Monterey County, supporting their health, stability, and comfort. The grants, students stipulated, must “provide recipients with second chances or opportunities to succeed.”

Then, mission statement in hand, the students contacted an organization of grant makers in Monterey, the Community Foundation, to inquire about the process ahead. They learned everything from how to create the application for local nonprofits, to how to advertise the fact that Stevenson students were offering grants, to how to design a rubric by which the students could judge which organizations best fit the Philanthropy Project’s mission.

“We had like 20 different categories—” says Schuyler Jones ’21, “from the number of people that it affects, to how much our money will help them, to whether or not they have other donors. And then we ranked them on a scale of one to five—five being phenomenal; three being, ‘It fits’; and then one being, like, ‘Yeah, this doesn’t really line up.’”

“There are so many anecdotal cases for why teaching young people about philanthropy is so important,” says Mackenzie Little, philanthropic services officer at the Community Foundation. “It really gives them some actual critical life skills—writing grants, fundraising—and learning about responsibility and commitment in order to improve their community. So I just think the project is a great idea all around.”

By the time the 16 or so applications came in, COVID-19 had forced the school to move to remote instruction, and the task of giving away Winton’s money moved online. The students had planned to meet with all the applicants in person and view their organizations on-site, but now they pivoted and formed committees to interview the nonprofits on Zoom.

“I learned so much about nonprofits,” says Lina Fang ’20, another senior leader. “And I think the ones that we ended up selecting as our finalists were just so compelling. And I loved hearing their stories through these Zoom interviews. That was really exciting.”

“That was my favorite part—” says Ladio, “watching how the students interacted with the organizations. Because, of course, they presented themselves so well. But seeing these organizations get so excited about what the youth in the area are doing—they were just really like, ‘Wow!’ They were so excited to be a part of it, and very clearly not even because of the chance of getting money, but because they were getting to have these really engaging conversations with students.”

In the end, the students chose five organizations that they felt would benefit most immediately from a grant, considering the devastating effects of the pandemic on the county. They gave $2,000 to the Foundation for Monterey County Free Libraries in support of their year-round literacy programs. They awarded $5,000 to Deaf and Hard of Hearing in support of at-home communication-building services for five families with deaf and hard of hearing children. They gave $10,000 to support the building of an emergency shelter for single women and families with children in Seaside. They gave $3,000 to Coastal Kids Home Care, and $5,000 to the Monterey County Suicide Prevention Center, which applied for the grant late, but whose need was obvious to the students.

“They knocked it out of the park,” says Winton. “I thought they were just going to make up a mission statement, go out and do a little research, and give money away. I thought eventually they might get to the stage where they put it out to people in the community. But now people are going to start finding us.”

The short-term benefits of the Philanthropy Project’s work to the community are obvious, but the students benefited in unforeseen ways.

“This was a very concrete thing that I had to look forward to,” says Ingram. “I was really able to pour my attention and then my sadness about being apart from school into saying, ‘OK, well, I’m a part of something that can help other people get through this, and make this better for others.’”

Jones agrees: “I do a lot of volunteer work, but I never really had a way of being philanthropic—I don’t have a ton of money to give. And Stevenson was the first time that I had a way to do that.”

Jones will have a chance to do it again next year, because Winton has decided to double the amount of money she donates to the Philanthropy Project in 2021, giving the next group of Stevenson students $50,000 to work with.

“That’s a big chunk of money,” says Little. “Regardless of where you come from, $50,000 is a lot of money. And to be really thoughtful in how you use it? It’s just a really great learning experience.”

Article written by Trish Deitch