This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 1, 2009 - In recent years, the United Way of Greater St. Louis has ramped up its efforts to attract young people as volunteers and philanthropists, broadly defined. Here’s a look at what’s happening on two fronts:
Sixteen juniors from three area colleges make up the inaugural class of the organization’s Des Lee Fellows. The new program is billed as a way to cultivate the next generation of philanthropists. That doesn’t just mean preparing young people to one day become major donors, says Evan Krauss, Des Lee program director and a manager within the United Way’s Volunteer Center.
“The purpose of our training is to get people engaged in their communities, donating their time and talents, and equipping students to become change agents,” Krauss said.
The yearlong program begins when the academic year ends, in late May. The United Way sets students up with 32-hour-a-week internships in fields like finance and public health; the majority of them work at for-profit companies, including Laclede Gas and Wells Fargo. The students also take part in leadership training through the organization Coro, and give a presentation on topics such as school dropout rates and the city’s racial divide.
Throughout the summer and fall, fellows serve on the United Way’s allocation panel. They visit agencies that receive funding from United Way and assess whether the money is being spent wisely. In the fall, the students are part of the body that decides where dollars are allocated.
Krauss said students will work on yet-undetermined community projects this spring. By then, another class of fellows will be selected. Unlike last year, when recruitment came together at the last minute, Krauss said the process will likely begin as early as October. (Roughly 30 applied in the first year; Krauss expects a larger pool this time around.) Washington University, Saint Louis University and Harris-Stowe State University were part of the pilot program. The plan is to include more regional colleges this year and to open up the program to some Illinois students in year three.
Students are selected on the basis of prior community service experience in college and academic achievement, among other factors. Krauss said about one-fourth of this year’s class is from St. Louis, and the United Way of St. Louis is hopeful that the program will help keep students here after graduation.
Hannah Longmore, a junior at Washington University who went to high school here, said she heard about the program through the campus career center. She was anticipating a tough job market and said she was glad that the program linked her with the public-relations firm Fleishman-Hillard. Longmore is the blood drive coordinator for Wash. U's community service office and is involved in a sexual assault awareness group. She said she's getting to see a different side of philanthopy. "I never knew how groups like the United Way allocated money, and it's interesting to see that it's a clearly defined process."
Meanwhile, the United Way’s young professionals group, GenNext, continues to grow. When the group formed in 2005, about 125 people took part in at least one event; last year, the number was up to 575, said David Gonzalez, vice president of special markets for United Way of Greater St. Louis. Nearly 100 people attended three or more service projects in 2008.
Another measure of growth: In the first year, GenNext members logged more than 250 community service hours; last year, the number was more than 900 hours.
Almost every month, the group plans a monthly weekend service day in which members do projects like painting, gardening or working with children. Networking receptions and professional development lunches are also common.
Although a recent report showed that volunteering is down during the recession, Gonzalez said he’s noticing more young people looking for volunteer gigs.
“We’re seeing people who are new to St. Louis and wanting to get involved somehow, as well as people fresh from college whose friends have left the city,” he added. “It’s an opportunity for people to make a contribution and meet people in an environment that might be more comfortable than a networking event or wine tasting.”