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New Generation of Activists Channels Their Idealism

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Even when put on hold, callers to the Boston offices of City Year cannot escape the idealism that sparked the creation of this youth-service corps.

In those idle moments that another business might fill with soothing background music or advertisements, callers to City Year are likely to hear a recording of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking of his dream of racial harmony.

Alan Khazei, the co-director of City Year, quips that callers complain about being taken off hold. "I can't tell you how many people say, 'You took me off hold! I want to hear the rest of the speech.'"

Seven years ago, Mr. Khazei, 33, and Michael Brown, 34, started City Year, which President Clinton cited as a model for the national AmeriCorps program.

Signs of Growth

A melding of the entrepreneurial spirit of the 1980's with the activism that was the hallmark of the 1960's distinguishes City Year and a growing number of other nonprofit groups that were founded in recent years by young adults. Defying the image of disillusionment often attributed to people in their 20's and early 30's, sometimes known as "Generation X," Mr. Khazei, Mr. Brown, and others like them bring energy, ambition, and even optimism to their pursuits.

Though it is unclear how many nonprofits have been launched by young adults in recent years, philanthropic leaders say that they are growing in number and that many of these groups focus on schools and youths.

Independent Sector, the nation's largest association of nonprofits, and Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, one of the best-known research centers in this field, say more young people are starting nonprofits. But neither has kept track of how many such groups exist.

Among the new breed of groups devoted to youths and schools are Teach for America, the five-year-old teacher corps that grew out of the senior thesis of Wendy Kopp, a Princeton University graduate; the Youth Volunteer Corps of America, a community-service group for teenagers founded by David Battey shortly after he graduated from Williams College in 1985; and Do Something, a charity established by Andrew Shue, an actor on the television show "Melrose Place," that gives grants of up to $500 to youths for community-improvement projects.

Some members of the new generation of activists are even starting their own schools. Sarah Kass, a 28-year-old doctoral student at the Harvard University education school and a former public school teacher, is one of the two founders of City on a Hill, a charter school slated to open in Boston in the fall. (See related story from this issue.)

Other signs point to the growing involvement by young adults in nonprofit ventures:

  • A recent "fund for social entrepreneurs" competition, sponsored by Youth Service America, attracted 400 inquiries, mostly from people in their 20's and early 30's. The seven winners will receive financial support and training to start nonprofits. (See related story from this issue.)
  • For the first time, Independent Sector has appointed two members younger than 30 to its board of directors: Jeffrey K. Trujillo, 26, a program officer at the El Pomar Foundation in Colorado Springs, and Vanessa Kirsch, 29, the founder of Public Allies, a five-city urban service corps. (See related story.)

Ms. Kirsch and Mr. Trujillo also serve on an Independent Sector task force studying how to groom more young people for leadership positions in nonprofit groups.

  • Not long ago, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation received only a few proposals a year from younger applicants seeking start-up funds. But now the Battle Creek, Mich., grantmaker receives 20 to 25 such requests a year, according to Joel J. Orosz, the coordinator for philanthropy, volunteerism, and leadership programming.

"There seems to be kind of return to idealism among young people in ways that we haven't seen recently," said Charles R. Stephens, the director of development and communications at the Indiana University philanthropy center.

"I think there is a real renaissance," added Anne Hallett, the executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform in Chicago. "As a nonprofit entrepreneur myself, I think it's great."

Teach for America, a group that places graduates of top colleges in school districts with teacher shortages, is perhaps the most widely known of the new nonprofit initiatives. In the five years since its inception, the teacher corps has placed 3,000 teachers in 16 urban and rural regions, and Ms. Kopp has achieved national prominence.

Ms. Kopp said she never planned to start her own organization but felt "driven by the power of the idea and the commitment of seeing it happen."

She turned to many people for advice, including Mr. Khazei and Mr. Brown, who had started City Year the year before. She told them of her plans to start a national teaching corps with 500 members in its first year.

Mr. Khazei said he told her: "This is a wonderful idea, this is tremendous, but you should think about starting smaller; pilot it with one city and 50 corps members, and then roll it out."

"And she nodded and sort of shook her head and wrote down what we were saying," he said. "But then she told me, 'We need to let people know there is a powerful sense of idealism among college students all over this country. If we don't start big, we won't be able to leverage that opportunity.' And she was right."

The spin-off groups founded by members of the teaching corps have been an unanticipated windfall. In a recent survey of corps members, 48 percent reported having started programs of various sorts. They range from a medical-internship program for high school students in Georgia to a children's literary journal for the students of corps members in Louisiana.

Ms. Kopp's first employee, Daniel Oscar, recently left Teach for America to form his own organization, the Learning Project.

Mr. Oscar said he hopes to open four summer schools this year in the Washington Heights section of New York City that use a project-based approach to learning. The idea is that students will learn by doing--creating a planetarium, publishing a magazine, or opening a restaurant, for example.

At the same time, Mr. Oscar said, teachers will have a chance to learn new methods during a less hectic time of the year.

"What appeals to me is not so much starting a new organization or being a social entrepreneur," Mr. Oscar said. "What appeals to me is the mission of this project."

Others have managed to squeeze in entrepreneurial ventures on top of full-time jobs.

Julie Kennedy, a second-year Teach for America member in Washington, has raised $35,000 to start a youth soccer league while teaching 1st grade, working up to 30 hours a week at a coffee shop, and studying for her master's degree in English literature. (See related story .)

"She has that rarest of skills among idealists--she knows how to organize rather than agonize," Colman McCarthy, a columnist for The Washington Post, said last month at a league fund-raiser. Mr. McCarthy featured Ms. Kennedy's program in a recent column.

Early Starts

About half of all 18- to 24-year-olds do volunteer work in some form. The figures are even higher for teenagers: 61 percent volunteer, averaging 3.2 hours of service a week.

For many budding social entrepreneurs, early experience with community service got them hooked. As a high school student, Ms. Kennedy spent a week each summer rebuilding houses in Appalachia with a Methodist youth group. And Karen Susan Young, the founder of Youth on Board, directed nutrition and multicultural-awareness programs for children while she was in college. (See related story .)

Others were attracted to the business dimension of community-based work.

David Milner, the founder of Funds for the Community's Future, started several for-profit businesses while a student at Middlebury College in Vermont.

After he graduated, he started a painting business in Lowell, Mass. "I ended up hiring people who lived on my block to help run the business, two of whom had been on parole and had rough beginnings, but ended up being great leaders," Mr. Milner said.

"I began thinking about how I could make a difference by connecting their leadership potential with the resources and framework needed to help them implement their ideas," he said.

Funds for the Community's Future is helping 17 neighborhoods in Washington organize projects that raise money and better their communities at the same time. (See related story .)

Even young entrepreneurs in the for-profit sector, such as Douglas L. Becker, 28, the president of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., are finding some time to lend a hand.

The company gives $200,000 a year to a scholarship fund sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"If they are busy looking to infuse the spirit of the private sector into these young, dynamic, nonprofit companies," Mr. Becker said, "I'm interested in infusing the values of the nonprofit sector into this high-growth company."

Funding First Steps

For many of the new nonprofit groups, getting start-up money from a foundation or corporation was a critical first step.

But even for foundations that support youth and education issues, taking a chance on an idealistic neophyte can seem like a big risk.

"The biggest concern all of us have in making grants to organizations led by young people is the lack of experience," said Mr. Orosz of the Kellogg Foundation, "and the sense that young people may sometimes make impetuous decisions that raise some eyebrows."

But so far, Kellogg's risks--it was an early investor in the Youth Volunteer Corps of America and T.F.A.--have paid off.

"The fact of the matter is, our experience has been that young people have been very careful managers of the funds we've given them," he said. "It's kind of like getting your first loan; you're scared to death if there are any problems it will ruin your credit rating forever."

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