How can philanthropy work with young people? Outlining the ‘Find, Equip, Enable, Connect and Track’ approach
In all their diversity, young people want philanthropy to support initiatives that empower them. They are calling for an equal partnership and meaningful engagement where philanthropy can create and invest in an enabling environment that will allow them to act on their own terms.
Young people are becoming more engaged, connected, and committed to ensuring opportunities for themselves and their communities. They are ready to lead and catalyse change in their communities. But they need support.
The transition from adolescence to adulthood is a critical stage in life that requires intentional and consistent investment. This phase of life can also be a period of risk, where young people, if not adequately empowered, can experience implications on their health, economic and social well-being. This is why young people who attended the Philea Forum in Barcelona are calling on philanthropy to step in and commit boldly to youth empowerment.
Why should philanthropy work with and not for young people?
For some philanthropic organisations, young people are the center of their mission. Their motivation comes from its founders’ personal beliefs and passion. Other times, the reason for working for youth is the belief in the potential of youth as current and future leaders. In the end, what is important is the quality of engagement these organisations have with the young people.
I have worked in youth engagement and partnership for over 10 years. At age 16, I was part of my government’s official delegation to the United Nations special session follow-up: A World Fit for Children +5. If there is anything these years of volunteerism and professional work experience have taught me, it is the fact that meaningful youth engagement is not a buzzword or a box to tick for philanthropy.
When entities are intentional about investing in young people, there are benefits not only for youth but also for the adults who work with them and the institutions they serve and lead. For philanthropy, working with young people is important for several reasons:
● Alignment with youth values: It is not enough for foundations to have their mission and values centered on young people. They must work with young people for the full and meaningful realisation of their missions and values. Engaging young people directly brings a unique understanding of their priorities, ideas, and innovative problem-solving approaches that can help foundations fully align their strategies to the ground realities that these young people face.
● Improve relations with grantees: Beyond the project management approach to youth initiatives, young people want and desire cordial relations with foundations. They want to know and feel trusted in their abilities to make project decisions. Foundations that commit time and resources to work directly with young people have the unique opportunity to build trust and understand young people beyond the monitoring and evaluation templates. You cannot fully understand the lived experience of young people and their aspirations without developing a personal relationship with them.
● Young people are candid with feedback: If you want to have a sincere measurement of your work with young people, they are the best to give you feedback. Without mincing words, they say things as it is. Working directly with young people means getting first-hand information and feedback about their priorities. For young people, it is less about power dynamics, organisational structures, and authorities. It is about seeing what is wrong and putting it into words.
Fondation Botnar is one of the few European philanthropic organisations already taking an intentional approach to working with young people. As a former youth officer for one of their flagship youth initiatives, YET4H, I saw how the leadership and staff of the foundation actively listened to and engaged their grantees to learn and understand how to improve project outcomes and the personal relationship with the young people.
Working with young people means being intentional at the leadership and staff level and investing the necessary resources to make the engagement meaningful. So how can organisations begin to inculcate meaningful youth engagement into their culture? The ‘Find, Equip, Enable, Connect and Track’ is a useful approach that can be adopted to achieve this purpose.
● Find: You need to find the young people; they are there in the communities where you work. Finding youth should not be done at a superficial level, where only those who are more easily accessible or visible are selected and engaged. Go further into communities and look for those often left behind, marginalised, and most in need of support. Finding these young people means investing the necessary resources, time, and money and doing due diligence to identify and engage youth, in all their diversity, as active stakeholders in the work of philanthropy.
● Equip: Recognise that young people often do not have the programmatic, monitoring, and evaluation skills they need to work with foundations. For youth to actively contribute to the work of philanthropy, they need to be trained and their knowledge, skills, and capabilities developed. Capacity building for young people takes time and should be done in consultation with the youth to ensure their training is relevant to their needs.
● Enable: Finding and equipping young people is not enough. Foundations should be ready to move youth concerns into action. Foundations must be ready to support the ideas and sometimes radical recommendations from young people. It is crucial to foster an enabling environment that allows young people to exercise their agency and become genuine contributors to the work of philanthropy.
● Connect. Young people’s lives are in a state of rapid transition. That means they must age “up” rather than “out” of the field. Beyond their project life cycles, foundations must create pipelines connecting young people to gain access to professional paid work. There is a need to retain youth talent, which includes employing young people as foundation staff. While not all young volunteers want to work in philanthropy, those who wish to continue their professional careers within the space must be connected to relevant opportunities.
● Track: Perhaps the most important component of this approach is that foundations must develop and implement strategies that document the results, learnings, and outcomes of their youth participation initiatives at different levels. We need the evidence to show others that foundations can work with young people for the success of youth, philanthropy, and society at large.