Expanding Horizons and Hope: The Logic of a Bank's Funding on Youth Employment

Youth unemployment is a national problem that is now squarely on the agenda of funders. Just the other day, we wrote about a new initiative spearheaded by Starbucks and its CEO Howard Schultz to provide jobs and opportunities to 100,000 young people. We've also written about a range of other philanthropic efforts to bolster the work readiness of young people. 

Two themes stand out in these initiatives: One, most look beyond the concrete skills of young Americans, or what jobs are available to them, to a deeper, more complex problem—the alienation of many young people from the mainstream world of work and the challenges they face in engaging with this world.  

A second theme is that corporate funders and their parent companies are often taking the lead in funding workforce development targeted at young people. That makes sense, since major employerssuch as the big bankssee first-hand the lack of career readiness of entry level workers. These companies have a big self-interest in addressing this issue, especially given projections of future labor shortages as the Baby Boomers retire. 


Citi is among the corporations that's focused in this area. A year ago this month, Citi Foundation announced a three-year, $50 million commitment to open up career and college pathways for young people. The foundation worked extensively with Points of Light to design a model for engaging youth in volunteerism for the purpose of advancing their career and life opportunities.

The result was ServiceWorks, a youth volunteering program that typically runs 5 to 12 weeks. The volunteer youth, coordinated by Americorps VISTAs in partnership with Points of Light, get experience in nonprofit settings while they build skills that may help unlock economic opportunities for their futures. Over the course of the three years, 25,000 low-income youth are expected to participate in ServiceWorks across 10 U.S. cities.

The program works with youth age 16 to 24, and is part of Citi Foundation's philanthropic goal to build a large-scale volunteer response to the youth employment crisis in America. And it very much addresses the challenge of youth alienation from the world of work and opportunity. 

"The program reaches out to the youth with three key componentssuccess coaching, skill training, and service projects," said Kirstyn Martin, vice president of Points of Light and executive director of ServiceWorks, in a recent phone conference.  "As we work these three components, we see young adults bringing themselves closer to their college and career goals."

Martin said that advancements in these three components "can really make the difference in terms of their knowledge of and connectedness to the community and the workforce."

Citi Foundation President Brandee McHale also joined the conference call, and she put it this way: "What really drove us at Citi to get involved was an awareness that for far too many young people in our country, lack of preparedness for a job or even the confidence to figure out the job search process is such a powerful barrier."  

McHale described how one of the positive outcomes of the program is that participants develop planning skills as well as the habit of planning for their college or career futures. Going into the second year of these positive outcomes is something she is feeling good about. "I wish you could see the looks on our faces, because we're swearing in our second cohort of AmeriCorps Vista representatives later today."

Martin described one of the most successful ServiceWorks sites, Casa Central in Chicago.  An adolescent male who participated in ServiceWorks there, whom she described as having "never ventured outside of his Chicago neighborhood," spent the summer in an educational program at UCLA. "Individuals are expanding their horizons, they're seeking activity beyond their comfort zones, and they're being pointed in the right direction by their success coaches."

Brandee McHale spoke about what she thinks makes ServiceWorks special:

it's actually highly experiential, putting young people together in teams, having them develop those critical problem-solving skills. They learn to organize projects and gather the resources needed to get those projects off the ground. It gives them a sense of what they can accomplish. It builds their confidence and, we hope, makes them want to persist to reach other goals.

What's interesting about this mentoring model for Serviceworks is that mentors are coming out into the community on-site with young people, which really helps both the mentor and mentee benefit.

McHale says that Serviceworks adds important knowledge to cities and communities about employment and economic growth. "We are creating more awareness and understanding of how the issue of youth unemployment affects cities and their economic stability, and how we can all come together to understand what works and why, and scale and promote the programs that have the greatest impact."

McHale also commented on the different ways that Citi is coming at the issue. "What we realized is there is really no one-size-fits-all approach to working with young people. While there is the large systemic issue of unemployment, what it really comes down to is: How do we inspire young people to believe in their own future and to continue to persist to get there?"

Along with ServiceWorks, Citi also has three other programs under the Pathways to Progress initiative: 

  • Summer Jobs Connect, developed in collaboration with the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, provides 1,800 youth with meaningful summer employment and financial education in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco. 
  • The Make Your Job component is a collaboration between the foundation and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship which provides intensive training in developing entrepreneurial thinking.  
  • A third program, Mentor 2.0, is a partnership with Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT). iMentor has plans to connect 1,000 youth with mentors in various fields of business.

McHale summed up her vision of the future of Citi Foundation's collaboration with ServiceWorks over the next two years: 

We are also continuing to scale. We are going to bring on another cohort. We are also telling the story of the power of service and the benefits of that. We want to make it clear that from a small investment on the front end, a powerful set of results can accrue, and in particular I think the Americorp VISTAs program is one of the best financial investments we can make in this country.

The broader issue is that there are far too many off-ramps for the path to success for young people, and not enough on-ramps. We want to flip that around and through engagement in local communities, the pairing with mentors, the interaction both with people in your community and outside of your community, we're hoping to create more of those on-ramps.

All this sounds great, but we'd be remiss if we didn't underscore McHale's point about "systemic unemployment" and end this piece with an economic reality check. Yes, it's important that more young people are ready for careers and believe in their futures. But the actual job market for these Americans remains very tough. The U.S. is moving toward a tighter labor market, but we're not there yet, and there are still many more unemployed young people than job openings.