Diversity, equity and inclusion comprise a hot topic these days within the nonprofit world. In philanthropy, a growing part of this conversation centers on how to address persistent power imbalances between grantmakers and grantees—imbalances that are often overlaid with dynamics related to class and race. Here and there, new models are arising that truly challenge the established order of things.
Operating largely under the radar in northeast Minneapolis, Youthprise is a great example. The grantmaking intermediary’s mission is to reduce disparities affecting Minnesota youth, racial ones in particular. It’s walking the talk: Seven of its board members are between the ages of 16 and 25, showing the organization is serious about addressing another kind of power imbalance that can exist in philanthropy: between older grantmakers and young beneficiaries. This imbalance isn't much talked about, but just consider how many foundation initiatives target children, teenagers or young adults in areas like education, workforce development, and criminal justice—while rarely giving these groups any meaningful input into grantmaking decisions. Youthprise is showcasing an alternative to that status quo.
The McKnight Foundation, a powerhouse in Minnesota philanthropy, established Youthprise in 2010 and is still its primary backer. The remainder of its support comes from a mix of federal, state and individual funding, as well as smaller grants from Minnesota family foundations. Young people weren’t always present on the board, but that changed as the organization fleshed out its work. “Philosophically, this was there from the start,” said Youthprise President Wokie Weah. “Young people can add value to how an organization such as ours is run. Shifting the power and having young people sit at the table made us a stronger organization and increased our reputational capital.”
Youth philanthropy is still a fledgling space, but it’s hardly a contradiction in terms. As a generational wealth transfer of historic proportions gets underway, we’ve seen funders and affinity groups move to organize future donors and spark an early interest in giving back. While groups like Resource Generation cater to well-off young people, Youthprise considers philanthropy an activity to engage all youth, regardless of socioeconomic background.
In fact, Weah sees youth engagement as a critical aspect of wider funder dialogue with impacted communities. “A lot of people [in philanthropy] are gatekeepers,” she told me. “They organize based on ‘best practices’ without talking to those who are affected.” That’s even more true when the traditional adult-child divide gets in the way of genuine communication and partnership between people in different age groups.
For a deeper dive into the opportunities youth-led philanthropy has to offer, see this brief by Sheryl Seller of the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis University. Seller outlines a recent expansion in youth grantmaking, gives several arguments for its effectiveness, and details some best practices, many of which organizations like Youthprise are already adopting.
Youthprise’s current grantees include about 100 small to mid-sized Minnesota organizations that serve youth. Capacity-building is one main focus, as is finding ways to incorporate young people into how grantees design and implement programs. Weah emphasized her eagerness to help youth shift the systems that affect them, beginning with simple, concrete local projects.
YouthBanks are one of the primary ways Youthprise pursues that goal, and the model’s quite interesting. Back at the start of this decade, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation set things off by partnering with overseas funders on YouthBank International, a global network of sites that involve young people as grantmakers in their communities on the grassroots level.
YouthBanks are operational in places like Turkey, Northern Ireland, Russia and central Europe, a testament in part to Mott’s sustained push to strengthen the civic sector in former communist states. But there is as yet no YouthBank USA. Youthprise’s six Minnesota YouthBanks are currently the only ones in the U.S., although Weah spoke of plans to open two more—one on the East Coast and another on the West.
YouthBanks can be immensely creative spaces in a grantmaking world that could do with more fresh approaches. “It’s a bank of ideas young people have about what their community needs. We can study how young people invest and compare that to how adults invest,” Weah said. “Young people take the process very seriously. They like to cut to the chase.”
Funding ideas that have emerged from Youthprise’s Minnesota YouthBanks include novel strategies like opening a barber shop in a school—grooming being essential to job market competitiveness—and funding a drivers education program. “No adults had thought of that,” said Weah.
Youth-led brainstorming has the potential to facilitate the kind of targeted, community-involved evaluation process social justice funders often say they want to adopt. But while projects like a barber shop or drivers ed may be innovative, they don’t exactly change underlying systems. That arguably requires an organizing element. Research is another way funders have long sought policy influence.
At Youthprise, a program called Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) unites both of those strategies. Like almost all of Youthprise’s programming, YPAR opens the field of sociological research to young people. Over the course of a year, applicant organizations receive funding to train and support teams of youth as they complete research projects in their own communities.
Youthprise sees participants’ local knowledge and digital fluency as a major asset. “Young people from the community know who to talk to, and they use social media to mobilize around their research topic,” said Irina Barrera, research director at Youthprise. Ideally, these research projects serve a purpose beyond enrichment of the individual. “What’s unique about YPAR,” Barrera said, is that it “places young people in a space where they have power, and can make decisions about where money is being invested.”
The aftermath of the Parkland tragedy amply demonstrated how youth organizing can shift the national debate and entice funders to join the cause. On the local level, too, energized young people can deliver up significant challenges to entrenched power if they organize effectively. As we’ve seen, youth organizing has gained steam lately in the context of the anti-Trump “resistance” and related movements to safeguard vulnerable communities.
According to the folks at Youthprise, the key to building that latent energy into a constructive force is to fund intergenerational partnerships. Bucking the angry adolescent stereotype, youth appreciate adult guidance in what Weah has called a mutually deferential environment. But at the same time, they want to be trusted and heard. With the shape of America’s future in question, it’s worth asking how philanthropy can guide and support younger people who, though inexperienced, are also less wedded to established practices that may impede change.