Not Just College: A Bank Foundation's Strategy to Build Careers for Youth

There’s a lot of money flowing from the big banks to youth development. Among them, Citi stands out for its interest in partnerships, especially those of the public-private variety. Back in 2014, the Citi Foundation committed $50 million over three years to its Pathways to Progress initiative, seeking to improve career readiness among 100,000 American youth (ages 16 to 24) from low-income backgrounds.

One piece of that pie is the Youth Opportunity Fund, a collaboration with America’s Promise Alliance to provide career-oriented grants for youth in 10 cities.

Last year, every single one of the Youth Opportunity Fund’s grantees involved partnerships with public agencies. This year’s grants, announced earlier this month, continue that trend with plenty of public-private work intermixed with the usual nonprofit fare. There’s also some overlap from last year. Along with a group of new grantees, United Way, YearUp, and Per Scholas will receive continued support, albeit in different cities than last year. As is often the case with Citi, the grants go to organizations that place a premium on collaboration.

The grants are for $250,000 per year, and support youth development in the following cities: Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Newark, St. Louis, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. In its full list of this year’s grantees, America’s Promise Alliance emphasizes the number of youth each grant serves. Citi says the Youth Opportunity Fund has directly benefited over 7,000 young people so far.

Citi’s approach to career readiness through the Youth Opportunity Fund emphasizes entrepreneurship, entry into employment, and STEM opportunities. College is a focus, but it isn't the only one. In fact, programs to get young people into stable, well-compensated fields dominates this year’s slate of grants even more than those awarded in 2015.

The variety of industries involved, inclduing media, clean tech and construction, doesn’t entirely gel with our cynic’s interpretation of bank giving for youth: that they’re grooming young people to work in financial services. The Youth Opportunity Fund could reflect a pragmatist’s approach to 21st-century career development, one in which a four-year degree isn’t automatically the best option.

Of course, that's a trend we're hearing a lot about these days, with more experts arguing that college—which has never been for everyone, anyway—has grown so expensive that it's imperative to expand alternative pathways to career success. Meanwhile, some well-paying industries have been clamoring for workers with very specific skills—ones you don't necessarily learn at college. As we've often reported, workforce development funders see growing opportunities here for young people.

Citi's insistence on “flagship partnerships” and public-private cooperation in key cities extends beyond youth development. Recently, we covered Citi’s $20 million Community Progress Makers Fund, a grantmaking program that awards checks of $500,000 to a whole bunch of established nonprofits tackling community and economic challenges.

Another Citi Foundation initiative, City Accelerator, directly promotes public-private cooperation at the municipal level. The keywords here are "innovation" and "effective government." Those are goals of many public-private initiatives undertaken in city halls across the country, including New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.

On the ground, more public-private partnerships devoted to career readiness expose young people to a wider range of influences from a wider range of sectors. One challenge for philanthropy and government is to make sure young people’s interests come first, and funders’ employment needs come second. While those interests often align, the trick is to give young people more opportunities to choose from, not to simply funnel them into one limited career path or another.