Stuck at home during COVID-19, Gen Z started charities


Kate Nelson was in Los Angeles pursuing her passion for stand-up comedy and theater when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The senior at Emerson College had just spent a few hundred bucks on headshots and through her internship had made some connections at HBO.

But when COVID shut down the country, she was back home in western Massachusetts within days. A few weeks later, her older brother called: “Are you bored? We’re doing this thing, getting food from farms to food banks. We need people to help us fundraise.”

That thing became the Farmlink Project, which leveraged the COVID downtime of 600 college seniors to quickly build a sizable nonprofit with volunteer labor. As laid-off workers streamed into food banks in the first months of the pandemic, Farmlink helped meet the need — delivering over 50,000 pounds of produce in just one month.

“It didn’t matter that you weren’t being paid because you had your high-school bedroom to fall back on,” Nelson says.

Nothing has spurred the entrepreneurial spirit of Gen Z quite like the pandemic.

As a high school junior in suburban Philadelphia shortly after the 2016 election, Jahnavi Rao founded New Voters, which helps high school students run voter registration drives in their schools. She put the fledgling charity on hold when she enrolled as a freshman at Harvard University in 2018 but revived it during her sophomore year, starting a pilot program in Boston public high schools.

When COVID hit, New Voters took off, Rao says: “High school and college students had a lot of time on their hands.”

The charity has now worked with 300 Gen Z interns in more than 400 high schools.

In the fateful spring of 2020, a Stanford computer science major named Mary Zhu saw people complaining on social media that their internships had been canceled.

Zhu and another Stanford student, Amay Aggarwal, came up with the idea of connecting computer-science majors in search of work experience with charities that needed help with tech projects, such as building websites. That idea became the charity Develop for Good, which now has 1,500 student applicants vying for 300 volunteer slots twice a year.

“People were isolated at home,” Zhu says. “COVID was a big catalyst.”

Gen Z charities like New Voters, Develop for Good, and Farmlink may be positioned to scale more quickly than similar efforts in the past, thanks to young leaders who are accustomed to tapping their social networks.

Sam Underhill grew up in a small town in Indiana and learned about a fellowship opportunity with the Bill of Rights Institute after his AP History teacher forwarded him an email she had found in her junk folder. The program, which focuses on the role of government and entrepreneurship in civil society, includes virtual programming throughout the school year and concludes with a week in Philadelphia and Washington.

Underhill says he found the experience transformative but also came away puzzling over the role that luck played in his learning about the fellowship. Many high school students have little idea about the range of internships and fellowships that are available, he says. Last summer, he started ActivateGenZ, a nonprofit website that aims to aggregate civic and government internships on a state-by-state basis.

Now a freshman at the University of Alabama, Underhill says he’s already brought on 28 “community organizers” to compile opportunities at the local and state levels. He primarily connects with people interested in volunteering through LinkedIn or Instagram.

“When I reach out to people on social media, it’s not like I’m just reaching out to them on social media because they’re far away,” Underhill says. “We just do that in general — that’s the way our culture is now.”

The new charities are attracting volunteers because young people get to do real work, either in person or remotely. New Voters now has a research arm studying the civic engagement of high school students, and prospective volunteers can choose whether to help with the research or lead voter registration drives in their schools.

“Gen Z wants to get involved, and they really want to get involved in ways that are meaningful,” Rao says. “They don’t want to only be doing the grunt work.”

While many Gen Z charities are addressing real needs that haven’t been met by other groups, that’s not necessarily the norm.

Shai Dromi, a sociology lecturer at Harvard University who teaches an undergraduate class on nonprofits, says that every year he tries to talk Harvard students out of creating new charities. During the pandemic, multiple students approached him with visions of creating a charity to deliver personal protective equipment to vulnerable populations. Dromi urged those students to consider an internship at World Vision International or Doctors Without Borders instead.

“Join one of those organizations that really have expertise, so you won’t have to learn a complicated field by yourself,” he says. “Get the experience at a nonprofit, understand the issues from the inside, and within a few years, you’ll have the experience to start on your own.”

But some young people say they learned the hard way that needed services don’t always exist — and some are starting charities to make things easier for others.

In December, Ricardo Ramos graduated from Georgia Tech after just two and a half years at the university — and the education hardly cost him anything because he pieced together nine scholarships worth roughly $78,000. But he recalls that in high school he had to figure out the college application and scholarship process on his own. The counselors at his public school were primarily focused on struggling students, and his parents — both immigrants from Mexico — didn’t have any experience with the college-application process.

Last fall, he started a new charity, Gracias, that works with students in high schools in largely Hispanic neighborhoods in or near Atlanta. He and his leadership team of 11 volunteers try to motivate students to go to college and help them with the paperwork.

“Counselors are overwhelmed and are only helping those who are in the most need,” Ramos says. “That means a lot of other students go under the radar.”

Ramos says his charity is well positioned to reach undocumented students and their families since Gracias is not affiliated with any public systems and does not receive government support.

“It gives the community a lot more confidence in working with us,” Ramos says.

Creating a new charity can be exhilarating — and subsequent work experiences can feel like a letdown.

Nelson, the college student who helped start Farmlink, moved on after an intense year of volunteering, during which she often put in 60-hour weeks. She needed a job to afford to move out of her mother’s house, so she moved to New York City and become a server at a restaurant. That lasted less than six months.

Farmlink reached out in early 2022 to see if she was interested in returning — this time for a paid position as director of marketing.

“The entire time I was not working for Farmlink, I was wishing I was — I was so proud of it,” says Nelson, now chief marketing officer. “I called the restaurant and said, ‘I can’t work here anymore.’ It was the easiest choice to make.”

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Ben Gose is a senior reporter at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where you can read the full article. This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy as part of a partnership to cover philanthropy and nonprofits supported by the Lilly Endowment. The Chronicle is solely responsible for the content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.



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