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Q&A with Adam Seidel, Program Manager, Common Cents

By Tom Watson on February 10, 2006No Comment
Q&A with Adam Seidel, Program Manager, Common Cents

Common Cents NY, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering young people’s positive impact on communities, recently announced the launch of their new non-profit database specifically designed for young people, The Organization Finder.  In order to find out more about this revolutionary approach in youth-driven philanthropy, we interviewed Adam Seidel, Program Manager at Common Cents.

Q:  Please describe to our readers the mission of Common Cents and its Penny Harvest Program.  What was the impetus for the idea of creating a youth-driven philanthropic organization?
A:  Our mission is to tap the generosity of children, which ultimately leads to helping communities and schools nurture a new generation of capable and caring young people.

The Common Cents Penny Harvest came to be when our Executive Director, Teddy Gross, was walking with his young daughter Nora on the Upper West Side, and she asked him what they could do to feed a homeless man.  He came up with the idea of collecting people’s unused pennies.  That was 15 years ago.  Ever since then, children have been going door to door gathering pennies and then giving that money in grants to community non-profits.  The children themselves decide who to give the money to.  They have to research and interview community groups.  That’s where The Organization Finder comes in.
Q:  What are some successes of Common Cents’ Penny Harvest Program?
A:  Our most important success is the transformation of children.  Teachers tell us how transformative the experience of helping others can be for the students; they are given real responsibility, and they rise to the challenge. 

Another great success involves the sheer number of children who are involved in helping people through the Penny Harvest starting at a very early age. This year, over half a million students in 770 schools in New York City and 10 schools in Albany gathered pennies in their neighborhoods worth $650,000! About 10,000 student leaders are now meeting in small councils within these schools to decide how to help people with the money.  
Q:  We understand that Common Cents has developed an enhancement to its Penny Harvest Program entitled “The Organization Finder,” a searchable database of non-profit organizations designed especially for younger children. Please elaborate on this new development and describe the role that it will play in the future of Common Cents.
A:  The Penny Harvest aims to tap into the generous and giving spirit of children. We know that children feel empathy and care for others that have less than they do. That is how the program started and it is what still fuels it year after year. But we not only want to help children express their caring – we want the larger community to take notice and support them, too.

The Organization Finder helps organizations respond appropriately to our students’ work. We want to make Penny Harvest philanthropy even more hands-on and educational. Non-profit organizations in line for a Common Cents grant can play an important role in the civic development of children.   They are a critical access point to a wealth of learning about the community, from people who have devoted their careers to helping others.

Also, by designing the Finder with children in mind, we legitimize their philanthropic impulse and efforts both in their own eyes and the eyes of the larger community. The fact that organizations are taking time to sign-up says that they respect what the students have to offer and acknowledge that it is unique. 
Q:  In developing a database as large and thorough as The Organization Finder would need to be, how much of the design was devoted solely to ensuring that it remained child-friendly? Did you encounter any obstacles in designing the database? What does maintaining the database entail?
A:  The whole thing was designed to be “child-friendly.” That is the end-user. However, our definition of child-friendly is not just about graphics and fun navigation. To us, “child-friendly” means that The Organization Finder is useful for children and takes their efforts seriously.

In fact, our most heated discussions in the design process were about what questions we should require organizations to answer and how those questions should be phrased. We wanted to honor the students’ seriousness about their work and build off of our experience working with children on these issues to make sure that the information included would do justice to their process of making cash gifts.

One of the most significant moments in the Penny Harvest process comes when students realize that they cannot fix everything with the money they have, and that they have to make some tough decisions.  Should they help stray animals or children in the foster care system? As obvious as that choice may seem to many adults, it is for many children the first time they have faced such real-world choices.  The Organization Finder is designed to help them navigate through the debate and decision-making.  We want the information to be relatively uniform and easy to read, so they can compare easily.

Q:  How many organizations are currently registered in the database? How will Common Cents increase organization registration?
A:  Right now, we have over 100 organizations signed-up.  Almost all of them have gotten Penny Harvest grants from students in the past. They have been very receptive to this idea because these organizations understand our mission. Now, we are trying our best to spread the word about The Organization Finder to everyone else.

For further information, contact Common Cents at (212) PENNIES or visit http://www.commoncents.org/.

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