Rivers Givers Teaches Lessons in Philanthropy

Giving money away isn’t as simple as it looks.

For philanthropists—and philanthropists-in-training—it’s rarely just a matter of raising the money and writing a check. Charitable causes must be chosen and vetted with care, ensuring that they are not just well intentioned but effective. Donors need to know where their dollars are going and whether the recipients are fiscally responsible. Grant proposals must be reviewed for feasibility and impact.
It’s a complex process, and that’s really the underlying purpose of Rivers Givers, a longtime Rivers program aimed at teaching students about the ins and outs of the nonprofit world and charitable giving. “They’re learning how philanthropy works, how the nonprofit world works, and about the intersection of nonprofits, government, and industry,” says Kit Cunningham, director of community engagement at Rivers.

Each year, a group of juniors and seniors commits to the program, which includes a three-part curriculum, several workshops, a community service project, and extensive fundraising. “A small group of seniors apply for and are chosen to lead the juniors, and they are trained to deliver the curriculum,” notes Cunningham. “It is a unique feature of the program.”

Early in the year, the group solicits grant proposals from an array of local nonprofits, and over the course of the program, they evaluate the proposals and award the money to those groups they deem most deserving.

Students also meet the people behind the organizations—both staff and clients. “Not only has the program provided me with the experience of creating fundraisers and awareness for non-profit organizations, it also has connected me directly to these organization’s leaders and people and initiatives they are supporting,” says Evie Thomajan ’20, one of this year’s Givers. “Meeting these people and hearing their stories is the most important part of this program for me.”

Once the group has narrowed down the competition, they take a day to perform site visits, so they can see the organizations firsthand. “Visiting some of the nonprofits was a great opportunity to see them in action, which helped us decide how much and where we should donate the money we raised this school year,” says Max Meyerhardt ’21, another Givers participant.

On a sunny day in late February, the group boarded a bus that took them to Framingham, where they visited the offices of Call2Talk, an emotional support and crisis hotline supported by United Way of Tri-County. They also visited SOAR Natick, which supports people in recovery from addiction. The students piled into the small, modest offices of both nonprofits, peppering the staff and clients with questions about their processes and approach.

Cunningham notes that making the final choice about grants is “a really hard decision.”

“They get very passionate about certain ones and really argue for the ones they want. It can be a lengthy process,” she says. In the end, this year’s Givers awarded grants to both SOAR Natick and Call2Talk, as well as the MetroWest Free Medical Program, which provides medical care to uninsured and underinsured area residents, and the Wily Network, which supports students experiencing life challenges such as homelessness or foster care.

Typically, the awards are announced and distributed at a school assembly, with representatives from the nonprofits on hand to make brief presentations. This year, of course, there will be no spring assembly, but Cunningham is hopeful that it can take place in September.

With or without the final presentation, there’s no question that the lessons of Rivers Givers have been learned. “This program has taught me so much about how nonprofit organizations operate and how to read grants and decide where to donate money,” says Meyerhardt. “I gained so much knowledge about what community service can look like and about the financial side of service.”

Says Thomajan, “Our work goes beyond providing funds. We get the opportunity to raise awareness within the Rivers community about these meaningful organizations and hopefully garner them more support.”
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