For as long as I can remember, I was by far the youngest person at the table whenever funders gathered their grantees during a call or a workshop. As the leader of El Derecho a No Obedecer, a project of Otraparte Corporation, a Colombian-based nonprofit, I always represented youth-led organizations. On many occasions, the only one at the table.
The truth is we’re not short on youth-led organizations in the Global South. Yet, how many of these organizations can say they have more than $50k USD in the bank? How many can argue that they have already worked with some of the big funders (Open Society Foundations, Luminate, Ford Foundation, etc.)? Even more specifically, how many of these organizations have a transparent accountability system and can gather the financial documents required to apply for U.S. government or European Union funding? The list gets shorter and shorter as we answer these questions. Supporting youth-led organizations is a fundamental step in transforming philanthropic practice and decolonizing it for several reasons, but philanthropy just isn’t there yet to support them.
Why is it crucial to fully support youth-led groups?
- Youth-led organizations play a crucial role in reshaping the philanthropic landscape by innovatively addressing deeply ingrained issues in traditional philanthropy and contributing to amplifying the civic space.
- They often represent marginalized communities and bring those unique perspectives to the forefront.
- These organizations tend to be more diverse and inclusive in their approach. Intersectionality is a critical component of young people’s identities. This diversity fosters a more holistic and representative ecosystem (regardless of the area of work) both in terms of leadership and in causes being promoted.
None of this is new. Philanthropic organizations are aware of it. Small grants and seed funding for youth-led organizations and initiatives have grown across many philanthropic, governmental, and UN agencies. I strongly support these initiatives. However, my call is to question ourselves: Why are we not giving more significant funding to youth-led organizations? Is it an issue of the youth-led nonprofits or of the philanthropic sector?
When I was the leader of El Derecho a No Obedecer (from 22 to 25 years old), in three years we went from $90k USD in grants and one funder to over $1.5 million USD dollars and over 15 funders. What did we do differently?
- Give space for innovation – and with it – failure: Youth-led organizations play a fundamental role in thinking out of the box. Using technology and grassroot mobilization to solve critical issues. Giving more substantial funding to youth-led organizations allows them to develop new technologies or new local, national or even international movements. There is a big chance some of the solutions will fail but what won’t fail is the strengthening of capacities of young people in positions of leadership. That’s the investment we should care about.
- Build trusting relationships across the organization and not just with the leader. A horrible idea that you need to fight when you work with a youth-led organization is that there is one great young leader in the team and you can only work with them. We had a full team of great young leaders and I made sure funders knew most, if not all, of them. These relationships help funders feel more comfortable with a bigger grant as they know there is a team to back it up.
- It is not only about you, it’s about the ecosystem: Funders appreciate when young activists and organizers are able to point out how their support allows them to build a bigger ecosystem. Who are you partnering with? How can you open doors to other youth-led nonprofits to meet your funders? Viceversa, if you’re a funder, how can you make sure that an ecosystemic point of view in a relationship doesn’t feel like competition for scarce resources? Ask yourself, why partner with youth? Is this part of a bigger shift in the ecosystem you are working on as a funder or is it to be trendy?
If you’re thinking about how to transform the philanthropic practice within your organization, start by asking yourself, how much funding are we giving to youth-led organizations? Are they receiving the same level of grants as nonprofits led by older or more known and established leaders? If not, why? And more than why, what are you waiting for?
By Alejandro Daly, Transforming Philanthropic Fellow at HIP