Funders Give and Get Advice From NYC Teens

By Jessica Pliska, Founder and Executive Director, The Opportunity Network and April Hawkins, Director of MetLife Foundation’s Civic Affairs Program

On most days, the job of philanthropy executives involves reviewing proposals, meeting nonprofit leaders and granting funds to deserving organizations, but on one Thursday night in March, The Opportunity Network turned the tables and invited a group of philanthropists to talk about their own careers and their professional journeys with New York City students. Joining us on the panel were Abby Frost from Gap Inc., Adam Gasiewicz from Hispanics in Philanthropy, Meredith Fontecchio from Deloitte, and Sonni Holland from the Charles Hayden Foundation. We brought diverse perspectives to the table, and spent two hours helping students understand the field of philanthropy, career opportunities and the kinds of skills necessary for success. The students are part of The Opportunity Network (OppNet), an organization that creates access for high-achieving, underserved high school and college students to career opportunities, professional networks and competitive colleges.

Opportunity Network students meet weekly to explore different career paths, build professional networks and social capital, and hone their skills in business etiquette.

The 40 students who participated in the session were motivated, diverse and socially conscious. They understood how organizations like OppNet can translate foundation funding into programs that change lives. However, they had never considered philanthropy as a career path. They wanted to learn about everything from the satisfaction that comes from building a socially responsible career to the details of dressing for the foundation workplace.

The students rolled up their sleeves and tried out the experience of being a program officer. One group reviewed a grant proposal MetLife Foundation received for a summer STEM program for middle school students. The OppNet students brought a fresh perspective to the proposal review. Because they were recently in middle school themselves, they were able to identify issues and raise questions from the perspective of the program’s end users. “The proposal review was very detailed in that we had to take into account many seemingly minute things like teacher-to-student ratio, gender breakdown, and start and end time of the program,” said Mohamed Sall, a student at Baruch College Campus High School.

The student comments illustrated the need for people with diverse backgrounds and experiences working in philanthropy. OppNet students represent a wide range of ethnicities, they bring real-world understanding of youth development and they know firsthand the challenges facing low-income teens. Engaging, and ultimately employing, young people like the group that participated in this panel can only make philanthropy more effective.

As philanthropies ask themselves where their next generation of employees is coming from and how diverse it will be, they can look to programs like OppNet for ideas. We saw firsthand that funders can use their positions to teach students about the field of philanthropy, how to build their careers and what they love about their work. The conversation benefits the students by providing information, inspiration and motivation as they think about their careers. And it benefits foundations by laying the groundwork for a diverse workforce.

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