Kelly Collison: Teaching kids to think bigger than their own little worlds

Editor’s Note: It came as a surprise earlier this year when we learned that nonprofits are increasingly experiencing difficulties attracting volunteers. And we were even more shocked that Cincinnati, long a beacon of generosity, trails similar markets in this regard. Our August issue profiles four people working at this problem from complementary perspectives. 

In arts education, the common belief is that you have to start children young. If you wait until high school or college to expose them to things like theater and classical music, it’s probably too late. Their tastes have largely been shaped.

It’s the same thing with philanthropy, said Kelly Collison, executive director of Magnified Giving.

Kelly Collison

“I was fortunate,” said Collison. “I was raised in a giving family. So I was exposed to giving and volunteering throughout my childhood. I thought those were things every family did.” As she grew up in the Dayton suburb of Riverside, her parents and three siblings were deeply involved in volunteering at their church and parish school, St. Helen Catholic School. By the time she reached the University of Dayton, she realized that wasn’t the norm.

“I was so lucky to be at UD,” she said. “The Marianist philosophy that guides the school was something I could wholeheartedly embrace. You know – the idea that we are here to serve others. But if a child has never been exposed to that sort of idea, if they don’t know what it is to support a cause or champion a particular belief, then how are they possibly going to learn about it?”

That’s where Magnified Giving came in. 

Cincinnati businessman Roger Grein founded the group in 2008. He aspired to the same goal Collison had when she joined Magnified Giving in 2015: to inspire and grow a generation of philanthropists.

The idea behind it is simple. Magnified Giving begins by recruiting middle- and high school teachers or administrators. Ultimately, they’re the ones who must convince parents, school boards and students this is something worth doing.

Once the go-ahead is given, a single class might affiliate with the program. Or, in some schools, an extracurricular Philanthropy Club might be formed.

When Grein began, he had just eight schools involved. Today, more than 100 schools have joined the mix. Collison has added roughly 20 schools a year since she arrived and would like to see the number grow.

Most of the schools are in the Tristate, but Collison has made inroads into the Cleveland and Indianapolis areas.

Each school is bankrolled with $1,000 Magnified Giving raises from a mix of corporate, foundation and individual contributors. In turn, the students donate to a deserving nonprofit group. But which group? The process of deciding and agreeing is one of the greatest lessons the students take away from their involvement. Students research potential recipients. They may visit. Or do phone interviews. They learn to read annual reports and IRS 990 forms.

And then they negotiate with one another. Why one charity and not another?

“This is where it gets really hard,” said Collison. “If they’ve done their work well, all of the charities they’re considering are worthy of funding. How do you make the decision? Grown-up philanthropists deal with that every day. It’s a great learning experience.”

There are several variations on the theme. Students have ways to increase the size of their contributions. Kroger, for instance, offered matches up to $500 for schools that supported groups combating hunger. Other schools boosted their pool of money by holding bake sales. Or “out-of-uniform days.” Or, in one creative case, hosting an in-school Nerf gun war. Now, Magnified Giving has launched Camp Give, which offers weeklong crash courses in philanthropy for students in third through eighth grades.

The mix of schools is remarkable. It’s a 60-40 split between public schools and non-public ones. Some are from wealthy school districts, while others are from poor neighborhoods.

“That’s the point of this,” said Collison. “Philanthropy – giving to help – is something anyone can do. That’s a revelation for many of these students. You don’t have to be old and rich to be a philanthropist.”

Click on the “extracurriculars” link on Mother Teresa Elementary School’s website. Scroll down, past Cub Scouts, American Heritage Girls, Music Ministry and others. Finally, you come to RAK and Magnified Giving. RAK stands for Random Acts of Kindness and focuses on grades 3-6. Magnified Giving picks up after that. The school just completed its first year as part of the program, and parent sponsors Avinne Kiser and Sheryl Harold couldn’t be more elated.

“It was amazing,” said Kiser. “As a parent, as a teacher, you try to teach your kids to think bigger than their small little worlds. You struggle to find ways to open their eyes to the parts of society beyond their front doors. Magnified Giving really does do that.”

Going in, Kiser and Harold had doubts. Would the kids take it seriously? Would they give ample attention to researching potential recipients? Would they even be interested? Remember, they were dealing with junior high students, an age group infamous for its disinterest, especially in anything that doesn’t involve a star.

But when it came time to vet prospective recipients, the students wowed her. They wanted to learn more about groups dealing with hunger and disabilities and social justice.

“These kids were passionate,” she said. “And they poured themselves into their research. We’re very blessed out here. We are able to give our kids so much. But how do we get them to see life through other people’s eyes? You can’t give your kids a lot of lectures. They won’t listen. But with this, they went out and learned everything on their own. I was so proud of them. And so moved by what they accomplished.”

This sort of reaction continues to drive Collison. She looks back on the 20 years she spent as director of customer service for Aveda, the massive cosmetics company.

“I had lots of responsibilities,” she said. “I got to stage huge events. But ultimately, I wanted to sell more shampoo every day. That was my driver. And it was good. But with Magnified Giving, I have a very different set of things driving me. And I’ll tell you, there is not a single day that goes by that I am not inspired.”

For other perspectives on this issue, read about Doug Bolton of Cincinnati Cares, Craig Young of Inspiring Service (Cincinnati Care’s parent organization) and Clare Blankemeyer of Impact 100.

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