What do you care about in your community and around the world? And what can you do about it?
It's the kind of squishy, open-ended prompt you dread answering on a college application essay. But it's a fantastic way to help each of us identify personal values, set priorities, and find ways to engage with others.
Thanks to initiatives like JUF's Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation, it's not purely an academic exercise.
For almost two decades now, local high schoolers in Voices learn about philanthropy hands-on as they review grant proposals and decide how to allocate thousands of dollars each year.
I participated in Voices in 2006-07, during my junior year at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Now in my 30s, that was half a lifetime (and a full hairline) ago. But my Voices experience still shapes my approach to civic engagement in the Jewish community, my career, and my personal life.
Early on in Voices, we all shared the causes most important to us. That initial list really had it all: Food insecurity, literacy, genetic health, housing, Israel advocacy, environmentalism, women's rights, and social equality--even a cause to train service monkeys for those with disabilities.
One lesson became immediately clear: With limited funds, it's simply impossible to address every issue dear to every member of the giving circle. Through some friendly debate, we narrowed our priorities and established a mission statement to guide our grants process.
It's not easy to build consensus with a group of passionate people (let alone a Jewish group). But Voices helped us learn that difficult discussions are worth it when they're anchored around shared values and approaches.
Voices taught me how to measure a charity's impact and how to think critically beyond the fundraising pitch.
As we solicited grant proposals, our cohort set guidelines for what we would fund--and what we wouldn't fund. We reviewed nonprofits' budgets, researched their boards of directors, met with their leaders, and visited their facilities to understand how different organizations operate.
We learned that the same dollar carries different mileage at different places, largely depending on a charity's size, overhead expenses, and other donors. And those are all important factors to weigh when making allocations.
It's enough homework to make your head spin. And all these years later, it makes me appreciate that JUF is doing that same homework before making allocations--on a much more massive scale--every time I donate to JUF.
Through my Voice experience, I gained a deeper understanding of giving through a Jewish lens, learned more about issues facing the community, and got more comfortable sharing my views with peers.
And even at age 16, I felt empowered to make a small difference in the world. As the teen foundation gets ready to welcome its 20th cohort this year, I'm excited to see what the next generation of philanthropists will do with their voices.
Marc Karlinsky is a writer and former journalist who specializes in B2B marketing. He is a former president of JUF's Young Leadership Division and currently serves as a vice chair for JUF's Government Affairs Committee.
For more information on JUF's Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation, visit