It's Youth Empowerment First, Ice Cream Second at the Ben & Jerrry's Foundation

The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Vermont-based ice cream company, was established in 1985 with a gift of stock from one of its namesakes, Ben Cohen. The other namesake, Jerry Greenfield, was named president of the foundation (a post he still holds to this day; he has joked that he was appointed because he missed the first meeting when positions were decided. Jerry’s claim is a light-hearted one, of course, but it speaks volumes to the way the foundation has evolved over the years.

In 1991, the foundation began a transition into an employee-led group, one that's fully realized today. The work of “committee members” (Ben & Jerry’s employees who are on the grant selection teams) is considered part of their job at the company. As the foundation’s Director of Programs, Rebecca Golden, put it: “Our internal decision-making structure reflects our core commitment to empowering and elevating the voices of those traditionally without power.”

It's not surprising that the charitable arm of an ice cream company focuses on youth. It's also not surprising, given the ethos of this company, that the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation is keenly aware of the relationships among economic justice, social justice, immigration, housing, neighborhood development, education and the environment. Therefore, when it comes to youth development, the foundation looks to supports organizations and programs that educate, empower and give authentic voice to young people, to encourage them to take leadership roles bridging these issues and driving protections for themselves and their communities (with the collaboration of equally empowered community adults).

This occurs through a grant program the Ben & Jerry's Foundation calls Grassroots Organizing Through Social Change, the foundation’s key program for distributing U.S.-wide support. Grants come in good-sized chunks. The foundation states it will award grants up to $25,000; in reality the vast majority fall within $10,000 - $20,000. 

The foundation only funds programs that are unquestionably grassroots-driven, focusing “on the types of activities and strategies an organization uses for creating social change rather than on the specific issues the organization is addressing” with a Theory of Change that “people most affected by a problem are in the best position to determine the solutions.”

These guiding principles are evident in the foundation’s recent youth development grantees, including:

  • $20,000 to the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (Los Angeles, CA) for its Youth Organizers Program, which "provides opportunities for low-income youth to create social change in their communities";
  • $20,000 in general operating support to the Youth Organizing Institute (Durham, NC), committed to "understanding and dismantling systems that prohibit working class youth and their families from fully participating in a democratic society";
  • $20,000 to People Acting for Community Together (Miami, FL) for its Keeping Our Children in School project, training community leaders to address the problem of a focus on youth arrest for minor infractions, rather than focusing on addressing and preventing future problems;
  • $15,000 in general operating support to Gardening the Community (Springfield, MA), "a food justice organization" focused on "youth development, urban agriculture and sustainable living to build healthy and equitable communitities;"
  • $15,000 to the Resilience Advocacy Project (New York, NY) for its YouthVoiceNYC initiative, which "provides organizing training and leadership development so that youth impacted by poverty can take real action on issues affect them and secure a meaningful voice in city-level decision-making."

To learn more about the organizations supported by the foundation, explore its Grantees list.

Not surprisingly, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation has an open grant application process, with two LOI deadlines each year (typically April and October) for its Grassroots Organizing for Social Change program.

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