A New Generation: How a Funders' Collaborative Sees the Prospects for Youth Organizing

photo:  Glynnis Jones/shutterstock

photo:  Glynnis Jones/shutterstock

When a working group of progressive foundations came together in the late 1990s to launch what would become the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO), youth organizing was having a moment in the sun. Leading the charge were funders like the Ford Foundation, the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Surdna Foundation.

While it’s been a bumpy road since then, things have been looking up, lately. According to FCYO’s executive director Eric Braxton, “After the financial crisis of 2008, funding for youth organizing took a major hit. Over the last two years, we have seen a significant increase in interest in the leadership of low income young people and young people of color.”

Whether they’re opposing the “school-to-prison pipeline,” organizing immigrants, or supporting the movement for black lives, many of today’s youth organizers feel newly galvanized. Some groups, of course, are more established than others. In the Trump era, some feel “a new urgency to protect their communities from both hate groups and harmful public policies,” while others “have been experiencing harmful conditions for a long time and... this election was nothing new for them,” said Braxton.

But they all need resources, and while last year saw more funders back movement building, youth organizing hardly tops philanthropy’s priority list. FCYO wants to change that. With support from a number of members, notably the Ford Foundation, it has rolled out a grant program of its own called Pipelines to Power. Supporting work by low-income young people and young people of color, Pipelines to Power provides a cohort of 16 organizations with $40,000 per year for three years (see the full list here). In addition to receiving general operating support, grantees will work together on a power building strategy with the promise of more FCYO support down the line. 

Grantees range across the country, and their causes are diverse. For Pipelines, FCYO wanted to fund organizations that are already well-established. Some are associated with national movements, like United We Dream and Black Youth Project 100. Others, like Chicago’s Communities United, Los Angeles’ Inner City Struggle, and Oakland Kids First! tackle local problems like criminal justice, gentrification and neglected schools. Still others, including Youth United for Change and Padres Y Jovenes Unidos, want to expand their geographic reach and move into voter engagement.

According to Braxton, the Ford Foundation is FCYO’s largest funder for Pipelines, providing the group with $5 million through its BUILD initiative. Twelve other FCYO members also pitched in, and Braxton mentioned that “we are also still in the process of raising funds for this project and are in conversation with a few foundations.” Those additional funds include support for an Experimentation Fund to back new ideas.

This hunger for novel strategies and experimentation reflects the youth organizing field as a whole. Reviewing applications for Pipelines to Power, Braxton noticed that many groups feel they’ve “hit a ceiling” when it comes to achieving goals for their communities. For many, civic power building has become the name of the game. Specific tactics include mobilizing after moments of crisis, increasing voter engagement, expanding geographic reach, and nurturing stronger leaders.

Those tactics are hardly the province of youth organizers alone. As we saw repeatedly last year, progressive funders and affinity groups have been beating the drum for civic engagement (including from younger demographics like community college students), intersectional movement building, and more participatory forms of grantmaking.

Meanwhile, some leaders have spoken about the need to regain their strength and take care of each other, activism being tough work. Braxton echoed this theme, referring to an emerging realization among youth organizations that “the young people they engage are suffering from the very conditions that they are trying to change.” Many groups are offering “academic, social and emotional support, social service referral, and a number of other supports to their members.” At the same time, there’s a growing awareness that youth organizing itself can do a lot to support the holistic, healthy development of young people from underprivileged backgrounds. 

That could be a good argument to use in pitches to funders, and one that interested grantmakers might consider. But right now it’s still too early to tell whether this uptick in funding for youth organizing will last. As we speculate in our forecast for 2018, funder support for racial justice may begin to slip this year. But at the same time, funding for the anti-Trump “resistance” shows few signs of slowing down.