Funders’ most powerful resources are the young people they seek to serve


Jones Mwalwanda


Nearly 50 per cent of the developing world population is made up of children and youth. Of the 1.5 billion young people in the world, nearly one billion live in developing countries. Malawi, where I live, is facing a massive youth bulge, with children and youth making up more than half of the population — both a challenge and an opportunity for young people to play a significant role in the social development of their communities and society.

Malawi can harness the power of young people, writes Jones Mwalwanda. Photo credit: Unsplash

As a board member of the National Youth Council of Malawi and as the Executive Director of the Foundation for Community Livelihood and Development (FOCOLD), a youth-founded and youth-led NPO working to alleviate poverty through sustainable, community-based solutions, I get to see firsthand the power of youth in Malawi.

I also see how underfunded (or mis-funded) this work can be. I was excited to read new research from Elevate Children Funders Group that set out to better understand current philanthropic practice in this area. Shifting the Field found that many philanthropic practices are unproductive or even detrimental to the impact philanthropists seek.

My reaction? It is crucial for funders to remember that young people are both an opportunity and an investment.

  • Young people are assets. While many view them as lacking capabilities or deprived by circumstances, young people can collectively be a huge asset to development at all levels.
  • Young people are innovative and creative problem solvers. They are the key to helping communities meet their subsistence needs and improve long-term security and control over their own lives.
  • Youth can be visionaries when given the chance. They shape programs in response to lived experience.

Some themes in the research mirrored what we have experienced at FOCOLD:

  • Funders find it difficult to consult directly with children and youth-led organizations regarding program design. Many still rely on traditional sources like academic conferences and research, instead of first-hand experiences of youth.
  • While funders, program designers, and policymakers are keen to include children and youth, in theory, that inclusion, when it happens at all, rarely extends to the policy or implementation phases, often because they do not know how to target relevant children and youth groups.
  • Application procedures can be unintentionally alienating to grassroots groups, requiring a level of technical expertise that is not readily available. Many struggle to understand what is being asked of them, and may find it difficult to articulate their ideas in a way that resonates with western funders.
  • Even with strong applications, child- and youth-led organizations often cannot compete with large international organizations when proposals are compared using traditional standards. The one-size-fits-all method of due diligence can make it impossible to compare youth-led organizations with large international organizations.
  • Allocation of funds to child- and youth-led organizations is minimal compared to larger or more established INGOs, and short-term funding is common. The result is a loop of inadequate, short term funding that leads to minimal impact — and the cycle continues.

In short, you can’t make decisions about children and youth in the absence of their voices and ideas. With their voices, the work becomes more meaningful, more relevant, and, to be perfectly honest, more fun. Their perspectives are fresh, they challenge old assumptions, and you get a stronger decision-making process if you’re working with the young people who will benefit from your program.

So, where do we go from here?

The Shifting the Field research provided tangible recommendations to help funders of child- and youth-led initiatives achieve greater impact. Echoing these sentiments, I have a few recommendations.

It is vital for funders to acknowledge the decision-making/power dynamics at play. Young people are often in situations where decisions are being made for them by adults and institutions. Instead, consider more positive forms of decision-making relations:

  • Work with young people collaboratively, and through collective action and joint learning. Treat children and youth-led groups as trusted partners.
  • Empower young people by supporting the development of their personal capabilities and confidence. This positions them as leaders and initiators of development.
  • Acknowledge young people’s right to participation. This is the responsibility of a wide range of actors, each of whom represents a potential arena for participation – be it an institution or social group.

There are multiple opportunities to engage youth at different levels in program design:

  • Grant Proposals: Funders can require their applicants to demonstrate that children and youth-led groups have been engaged in program design, even offering small design grants to enable grantees to conduct these consultations.
  • Strategic Planning: Funders from the Global North can establish partnerships with youth-led civil society groups to provide input on overall strategic planning and/or serve on selection committees or boards.
  • Taking risks: Given that funders have a uniquely independent mandate, they can and should push boundaries. Risk-taking must be encouraged when making funding decisions and in terms of geographical allocations.
  • Mitigating risks through partnerships and financing structures: Funders can mitigate some of the risks of moving into nascent areas through strategic partnerships with other development actors who can offer expertise or more extensive operational capabilities. The use of financing structures that reward success rather than effort aligns incentives and alleviates concerns among funders’ boards about taking on financial obligations to relatively untested organizations or strategies.

If they are to truly have an impact on the issues faced by children around the world, it is time for funders to move out of their comfort zones, think long-term, and take meaningful risks. Their most powerful resources are the very young people they seek to serve. Engaging with children and young people ensures that the aims set by funders will not only be successful but will be adopted and expanded by new generations of committed actors.

Jones Mwalwanda is Executive Director of the Foundation for Community Livelihood and Development.

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