Assessing the state of the relationship between philanthropy and youth

Youth have long fought at the front lines of social innovation and change, argues the ED of The Youth Harbour and the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship, but when they do receive funding for their grassroots movements, their work is often underestimated and undervalued. She offers some recommendations for how funders can better support youth.

Youth have long fought at the front lines of social innovation and change, argues the ED of The Youth Harbour and the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship, but when they do receive funding for their grassroots movements, their work is often underestimated and undervalued. She offers some recommendations for how funders can better support youth.

In 2021, a team behind The Youth Harbour initiative raised 1.15 million pooled philanthropic dollars to re-grant to youth-led climate movements across what’s currently referred to as Canada. At The Youth Harbour, a project of the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship, we play a unique role in the sector as an organization that simultaneously raises money for and distributes money to the youth-led climate movement. As executive director of The Youth Harbour, I have both access to the exclusive world of philanthropy and a bird’s eye view of what’s happening in the grassroots climate advocacy world.

However, being an “intermediary” of these two worlds is not as “otherworldly” as it sounds. In fact, the power associated with such a role has led some funders to expect The Youth Harbour to represent and relay all the sentiments of the youth-led climate movement, when consultation is still and always will be necessary. Meanwhile, youth-led climate groups can, sometimes, overestimate the amount of influence we have within the greater funding community, leading to tensions in peer-to-peer relationships when we cannot move as quickly in the institutional environment as grassroots movements may expect. Yet these challenges have inspired innovation on our team and have allowed us to reimagine and redesign new systems of advocacy, engagement, and giving that are more attuned to the limitations of both youth-led climate movements and philanthropic communities. The following article seeks to shed light on what we’ve learned so far about the status of the relationships between the philanthropic community and youth-led climate-movement builders.

The case for youth and how the system has been set up against them

As I make pitches to funders and potential partners to support more youth-led climate initiatives, I’ve been asked time and time again, “What’s the point of supporting youth?”

Well, where do I start?

The complex problems the non-profit sector is called to help solve are the results of the action and inaction of previous generations. Their legacy is one of racial injustices, climate change, and wealth inequality. If we are serious about addressing these social problems, we must recognize that the same people that advocate in favour of the status quo are certainly not fit to challenge and redesign the systems of injustice. Yet too often, the people who designed these failing systems are the people that remain in positions of power and control, acting as gatekeepers to systems change while youth hold steady on the front lines. Youth activists and leaders often bring about change despite, and not thanks to, their institutional mentors.

Youth activists and leaders often bring about change despite, and not thanks to, their institutional mentors.

Need proof that youth are at the front lines of social innovation and change? As evidence, we can look back to key moments in history. Protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s started initially among youth on college campuses, the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing were sparked by student-led groups, youth organized the Arab Spring in 2010 using technology as a tool to revolutionize, the Strike for Black Lives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder was led by youth, and Fridays for Future strikes calling for greater climate action was orchestrated by youth.

The claim that older generations tend to be “stuck in their ways” is not just the whining of millennials and Gen Z-ers, but is supported by  research. As people age, they adopt a “referential” over a “creative” state of mind and increasingly refer to previous experiences, routines, and habits to inform their decisions rather than using imagination and creative building to develop new solutions. In the case of youth, the same research tells us that there is a psychological sweet spot of creativity and innovation between 15 and 25, where people’s brains make the most space for creative and imaginative behaviour and ideas. Following this logic, it makes sense that youth, who are biologically wired to be more creative than 30-and-overs, should be more frequently placed in positions that are conducive to the creation and cultivation of innovative solutions to society’s most complex problems. Yet when we look at our current government, corporate, and philanthropic systems, this is certainly not the case.

Youth have a knack for willing social change into the zeitgeist, not resting until their ideas and movements are woven into the ethos of society.

Looking to philanthropy, traditional foundations and giving programs typically do not fund youth-led programs at the same scale as non-youth-led initiatives. Yet we know that 70% of Canadians agree with the demands of the youth-led climate movement and that having youth in decision-making spaces unleashes the “Greta Thunberg effect,” a phenomenon where older folks’ kids and kin provide a great penetration point to spark conversation on issues where they may otherwise be closed to new ideas.

Despite commitments to youth inclusion, youth action is underfunded, institutionally co-opted, or undermined. Youth have a knack for willing social change into the zeitgeist, not resting until their ideas and movements are woven into the ethos of society. That power is lost to systems and societies that fail to include young voices.

How is philanthropy currently treating youth?

Since 2019, I have worked with more than 50 youth-led groups across the country, particularly in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities, to develop community-led projects framed around climate change. Additionally, I’ve delivered presentations to 72 post-secondary institutions through the provision of sustainable development training and overseen more than $1.6 million in requests from youth for funding in the span of one year. In 2021, I attended multiple forums such as COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow, where I engaged with youth advocates on the ground. From my experience, here’s how I assess the state of the relationship between philanthropy and youth.

The problems in youth accessing funding can be broken down into three key points:

  1. Philanthropic networks are exclusive, and the charitable sector is filled with closed-door funder meetings and other forms of gatekeeping that marginalize youth-led organizations. Decision-makers are often out of touch with the realities of the groups they fund.
  2. The youth that can get access to philanthropic networks are underestimated and undervalued in partnerships with established organizations.
  3. Even when youth secure funds for their projects, low funding results in low capacity, perpetual poverty, and eventual burnout of youth activists.

Philanthropic networks are out of touch with the realities of the groups that they fund and are difficult to access

We’ve heard the old adage: “There’s not enough money to go around.” But approximately $100 billion are trapped in endowment and private foundation funds, and this doesn’t include the capital that is readily available and liquid. There’s really no polite way of saying that the wealthy hoard capital, at the expense of the health and well-being of future generations. In fact, looking at the latest Giving Report from Canada Helps, despite the gaps in wealth from generation to generation, 40- to 54-year-olds had the largest “giving drop,” decreasing their giving by 3.1% each year from 2006 to 2019.

Only 2% of philanthropic dollars are allocated to climate initiatives, but 44% of Generation Z identify climate change as the top cause they care about.

Often, the same people allocating funds are caught up in their own priorities and are out of touch with the realities of groups seeking funding. Philanthropic professionals are obsessed with setting key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics for a sector that they are not engaged with, meaning those same metrics and “strategic priorities” are unaligned with what’s actually happening on the streets. For example, only 2% of philanthropic dollars are allocated to environmental and climate initiatives, but in comparison, 44% of Generation Z identified climate change as the top cause they care about.

Whatever granting decisions are made now will have a direct impact on youths’ futures and generations ahead.

Fund development, at its core, is a “who do you know” game. Many young organizers that I speak to cannot seem to find “the right person to talk to,” much less their email address. All the funders know each other and speak to one another but evaluate and fund projects based on word of mouth over exploring and engaging with people on the ground to find relevant groups to fund. This leads to the same groups being funded repeatedly and the exclusion of upcoming youth-led initiatives. Young folks often can’t turn to older and more established organizations, as groups that do have access to philanthropic networks often block access to this information. This is because there is no incentive for these groups to put their revenue streams at risk of being passed over for a new (and perhaps more relevant) initiative.

Despite youth continuously being told that it’s a “privilege” to have access to philanthropic spaces, I argue that it is their right to be able to choose and forge the ways that philanthropic dollars are spent. Whatever granting decisions are made now will have a direct impact on youths’ futures and generations ahead.

Youth are underestimated and undervalued

Often, youth are not viewed as “legitimate” because they don’t fit traditional philanthropic frames: they are not confined by normative ways of thinking and don’t feel restrained by current capitalist systems when imagining better futures. Creative and imaginative solutions are, therefore, rejected simply because they are presented by youth and grant proposals are not sprinkled with funder-friendly jargon.

In addition, youth are told that their perspectives are not legitimate simply because they have not “aged” into being fully realized people with valid ideas and opinions. They are denied legitimacy at the door. Yet age is not a direct function of the legitimacy and value of opinion, perspective, and contribution. Rather, age signals a point in time suggestive of a particular psychological mindset, way of interacting with the world, and collection of experiences. As such, youth are treated as “becomings” rather than “autonomous beings,” to quote political theorist Barbara Arneil. This misconception devalues youth contribution on the criteria of age over merit. This practice undermines young people’s contributions simply because youthful ways of knowing are not compatible with outdated systems and modes of thinking. As they find themselves working harder to prove the validity of their points, the psychological stress and long hours many in the sector already face are only aggravated in the case of youth leaders.

This is a huge impediment to innovation as current systems are sprinkled with bureaucracy, and capital is controlled by those who have aged out of the innovative mindset – especially when it comes to support in social-impact circles from philanthropy. As a result, youth are losing hope in the philanthropic sector, opting to choose other sectors and career paths while the social sector loses the critical talent needed to advance its needs. As radical thinkers leave, the defendants of status quo are empowered.

Youth projects that ‘make it’ are not really ‘making it’

When they do stay in the sector, youth leaders do so at their own expense. In a way, I pity the young people who can secure funding because it means that they have committed the next chapter of their life to perpetual poverty, stress induced by insufficient resources, and near-unattainable promises of impact. The difficult position in which youth leaders are placed when they commit to exponential impact with abysmal budgets often feels like a trap.

When youth can penetrate exclusive philanthropic networks and make a convincing case for their cause, they are often so desperate to make it to the finish line that they undervalue and under-communicate their budgets as a way to increase their chances of getting approved for funding. This leads to a race to the bottom and has led to the youth social-impact sector being defined as a “group that can do more for less.” Philanthropy mistakenly celebrates youth for this reason, calling it “inspirational,” while also increasing their impact-to-dollar-invested ratio. Philanthropy mistakes passion and drive for willingness to do anything and be compensated any amount since the systems that uphold these problems won’t do their part.

Why would youth stay in a sector that does not adequately include, compensate, or value them?

When youth are approved for funding, their money often comes with stipulations and censorship; namely, youth are prevented from challenging the systems that perpetuate the wealth of funders. In addition, funding youth is trendy right now, and oftentimes funders tokenize youth and use the PR from funding a youth-led organization as a marketing tool. As a result, funders (intentionally or unintentionally) co-opt young people’s hard work by laying claim to it, slapping on their logo and quoting youth in corporate sustainability reports. 

Why would youth stay in a sector that does not adequately include, compensate, or value them? Youth leaders often burn out and leave the social-impact sector before their terms are complete. Those who do complete their projects often do not have adequate succession plans in place to transition their organizations, since youth-project funding tends to be tied to the head of the organization rather than to the organization itself. Meanwhile, leaders are often stuck in day-to-day administrative tasks to keep afloat rather than focusing on transition. As leaders move out of the sector, the institutional knowledge leaves with them, and thus the same mistakes are bound to be repeated, and difficult-to-access philanthropic networks are once again closed to incoming young leadership. This only perpetuates a funder’s view that a lack of leadership makes youth-led movement-building ineffective and unsustainable, when it is really the lack of funding that makes it ineffective and unsustainable. These negative feedback loops perpetuate a cycle of a social-impact sector that sets young climate leaders on the trajectory to inevitable failure from conception.

How can we move forward?

The relationships between funders and young social-impact leaders are not solely top-down or one-sided. There are a lot of things that older generations can learn from the way youth organize today, and there is a lot of wisdom that must be passed down to youth so they can be more effective in their social movements. The key here is that so far, the powers are grossly imbalanced between donor and grantee, older and younger, institutionalist and grassroots activist.

Some funders are now shifting away from the “status quo,” taking steps to engage in more trust-based philanthropy and unrestricted funding. However, these steps are band-aid solutions to a broken philanthropic system. Funders have begun to celebrate such shifts in giving habits, but at the end of the day, they are only minor shifts. I have also witnessed funders mistakenly co-opting and taking credit for the work the youth they fund achieve as if it were the funder that engaged in mobilization, policy, and solutions design instead of simply writing the cheque.

For funders that want to go beyond writing the cheque, here are some first steps that you can take to support youth that I have found to be successful as a recipient and giver of funds at The Youth Harbour:

  1. Provide unrestricted funding to youth-led climate movements and provide meaningful support when funding early-stage organizations.
  2. Collaborate with youth and meaningfully incorporate their input when determining your strategic priorities and granting decisions and compensate them for their contributions.
  3. Provide youth with mentorship and technical support, especially in impact reporting, administration, and communications, and fund the technology and capacity-building so they can be more efficient.
  4. Give youth the space and time to be able to invest in strategy and capacity-building and fund this work.
  5. Fund succession and transition planning in the form of multi-year grants.

These recommendations are simply a starting point when it comes to supporting youth-led climate action and social impact at large. As the scale and pace by which the problems associated with climate change grow, our institutional systems must also change at the same scale and pace, if not faster, to fund and support these solutions. We know that youth are at the front lines, they offer the most innovative and radical solutions, and they have the capacity to deliver if given the meaningful opportunity and freedom to do just that.

To older generations, my call to action is to blaze paths for youth, empower youth, fund youth, and get out of the way, as youth leaders are here now and ready to lead today.


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