Several years ago, Kristen Witzel was working as a childcare specialist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where she helped educate and support families whose children were hospitalized. Once the kids got better, she began to see a common theme: They felt thankful and wanted to help improve the world.
One day a boy named Jared, who had recovered from a traumatic arm injury, said he wanted to raise money for the hospital to help other kids. “I asked him: ‘What kind of stuff do you love to do? Let’s make this fun,'” Witzel says. Part of Jared’s rehab included wall climbing, which had become his new favorite sport. So Witzel helped Jared organize his own climbathon.
“When he was presenting the check, I had this aha moment of: ‘What if every kid had the opportunity to use what they love to help a cause that’s important to them,” she says. “Kids want to make a difference. They want to do something to change the world and have an impact, but they often just don’t know how.”
To change that, Witzel founded Kids Boost, an Atlanta nonprofit that teaches young people philanthropy just like any seasonal crafts or sports program. Except Kids Boost doesn’t charge participants any money up front. The three-month program gives each participant $100 in seed money and access to a personal coach. The goal is to figure out what cause they want to support and find a way to leverage that funding into a larger contribution. Eighty percent of what they raise goes directly to the cause, while the other 20% is used to enroll more kids.
Kids Boost is open to anyone ages eight to 14. So far, its graduates have completed 125 successful projects (some work in pairs and share the initial $100) since the group started in 2015. Overall, Kids Boost has seeded a total of $10,000 to kids, who have used it to help fundraise nearly $200,000 for 72 nonprofits.
Throughout the program, participants have weekly check-ins with one-on-one mentors to hone their business, money management, and communications skills. “It’s a season just like you would sign your kid up for soccer, baseball or maybe drum lessons or tutoring,” Witzel says. “We want it just to be just as easy for parents to get their kids involved in philanthropy and volunteering and civil engagement.”
Here’s a bit more about how that works: Let’s say one kid’s goal is to throw an ice cream party to raise money for an animal shelter. She or he could spend their $100 on supplies, but that isn’t a great use of the cash if very few people buy a ticket to show up. Instead, they’ll be encouraged to call store owners and then go meet them in person to ask if they might want to donate money, ice cream, or event space to help the project. The kids will also have to plan their party, figure out who to invite, and how to share with everyone just where their ticket money is going and why it’s so important.
“We always celebrate if they get a no,” Witzel says. “We talk about how deflating that can be, but is it because they don’t like you or they don’t like dogs? No, [it’s] because they can’t help you.” The lesson really is that success evolves from setbacks, so each effort along the way deserves to be rewarded.
Kids Boost started out relying on volunteer coaches but now employs three full-time mentors. On average, each $100 investment now returns about $1,800. Last year, the group completed around 35 projects, and in 2019 it projects to hit 55. As word of mouth has grown, Kids Boost has developed a long waiting list. To increase capacity and cover operating costs Witzel also takes individual and corporate donations. She hopes to expand to other places around the country. “Our hope is to get community coaches that are living, working, and basically the child hub of giving in their city,” she adds.
Once they raise their funds, Kids Boost enrollees are encouraged to personally present their classic oversized check to their organization. By then they will know how the money will be spent and what real services they helped pay for. “We try to connect the dots so that the kids can see exactly where their money is going,” Witzel says. “And then we also talk about what other ways can kids get involved with their organization.”
That might translate to volunteering or even another self-directed opportunity. “One time we went to a children’s shelter and one of the little girls presented her check and took a tour. She noticed that the bookshelves were empty . . . and so that day she decided that every month she was going to do a book drive to take to the children’s shelter,” she says. “So our hope is that it’s not just a one and done. We can connect [kids] to this bigger picture of how, even at 8 or 10 years old, they can make a difference for something that does matter to them.”