Youth-led development is the vision that young people help to implement, manage and oversee development in their communities and wider society and play a major role in deciding how resources are allocated (Restless Development, 2016; Kahn, et al., 2009). It is rooted in the belief that young people are valuable assets and resources and that their energies and talents should and can be brought to the table. A great deal of terminology is used in the youth field, and sometimes definitions are blurred or used interchangeably e.g. youth leadership, organizing, empowerment, engagement, etc. However, these terms differ in their scope and reach. Tools like Youth Engagement Continuum and Youth Leadership Spectrum have been used by several authors to help think about youth leadership as a continuum with a spectrum of possibilities – something that can develop and change over time rather than as a rigid concept (Movement Strategy Center, 2015; FCYO, 2000; Heinz Endowments , 2012). The youth leadership spectrum is shown in Fig. 1 (Movement Strategy Center, 2015).
According to Movement Strategy Center (2015), a youth-led organization or action is one in which the youth constituents decide what gets done and how it gets done. Youth led does not necessarily mean “no adult involvement or role.” “Youth led” is a specific relationship between youth and adults where adults are supporting youth to gain the skills, information and capacity to make decisions about the organizations in which they find themselves. Some of the key characteristics of youth-led organizations or actions are listed in Fig. 2.
A Challenging Environment
While youth-led organizations have become increasingly visible in the international, regional and national arenas, many are still struggling to gain recognition as important players in international decision-making processes (Advocates for Youth, 2009). With ever-increasing focus on inclusion of youth throughout the development process ranging from conception to evaluation, it is critical to understand the development and sustainability of youth-led organizations and networks. UNESCO Asia Pacific in collaboration with UN Volunteers and UNFPA conducted a mapping exercise of youth organizations and networks in the Asia Pacific region and identified a total of 808 organizations and networks, out of which 38% were youth-led (UNESCO, 2017).
The emergence of a youth-led sector is exciting because young people are organizing themselves, exploring different decision-making models, playing with social enterprise notions, rejecting hierarchical thinking, and appear to be naturally gravitating to collective leadership, action, and change (Ilkiw, 2010). UNOY (2017) notes that main strengths of youth-led organisations include: effective mobilization of youth and communities; creation of an open organizational structure that is built on trust, shared value and a sense of belonging to a common vision to ‘do’ something for their communities; development of skills and expertise amongst themselves and their target groups on development issues; access of local knowledge and hard-to-reach youth; attainment of credibility in their communities by implementing important community development work, at times in areas where no other actors exists.
Youth-led organizations also face a multitude of challenges that are both similar and different from adult-led nonprofit or community organizations. In a study conducted on youth-led organizations, Chigunta (2002, p. 7) noted that “…compared to adults, young people are disadvantaged in the following areas: more youth face problems of access to resources such as capital; more youth people start their enterprises with lower levels of initial capital; more enterprises owned by youth people have a lower market value or inventory; more youth entrepreneurs are engaged in a narrower range of activities; more youth people tend to operate from homes or streets; more youth people do not bring experience and contacts to the business, and; more enterprises owned by youth tend to rely on simple tools or had no equipment at all.”
In 2015, Restless Development undertook a study on ‘nurturing youth leadership in the global south’ in which several approaches, challenges and opportunities were identified. Furthermore, mapping exercises were also conducted by UNOY (2017) and UNFPA (2010) on youth-led organizations on peace-building and reproductive health respectively. Some of the key challenges faced by youth-led organizations are listed below: (Advocates for Youth, 2009; Movement Strategy Center, 2015).
- Staff development and management
Staff development and management is a challenge for youth-led organizations, in part because young people may be supervising their friends and peers. Developing appropriate structures and guidelines for staff development and management is critical.
- Leadership transitions
Like other nonprofits, there is often pressure on leaders of youth-led organizations to be in the public limelight, especially with funders. If the organization’s reputation becomes too connected with a single charismatic young adult leader, it can undermine the leadership development of others in the group. Setting up clear structures to develop and transition leadership within the organization is essential.
- Appropriate, youth friendly support and capacity building
Youth-led organizations need to pay special attention to capacity building because the people running the organization have had less professional and life experience than their older counterparts. This does not mean that young people can’t run organizations. It does mean they need support and mentorship to do it well.
Running an organization is extremely difficult. Many adults face burnout when they run nonprofit organizations. It can be even worse for young people. Finding ways to take care of members and prevent burnout is very important.
- Self-care and individual development
Many young people face multiple life issues and are making big decisions about their lives. Some youth-led organizations choose to integrate self-care packages into their benefits for employees, including counseling, life planning support, alternative health care and education support, among others.
- Intergenerational relationships
It is challenging for both youth and adults to unlearn adultism. Intergenerational learning and relationships are important factors in the development of youth-led organizations. Young people and adults need to work hard for them to happen.
Fundraising can be particularly difficult in youth-led organizations because youth often don’t have a lot of fundraising experience. Donors are often skeptical and mistrustful of young people managing money. Key issues in fundraising include understanding fundraising cycles, relationship development with funders, developing a fundraising plan, and employing different fundraising strategies.
- Legal contracts
Nowhere is adultism more present than in negotiating legal documents such as leases, payroll contracts, and grant agreements. Youth-led organizations consistently find roadblocks in their work when it comes to negotiating these agreements. Often, organizations have to work with an adult ally to sign or cosign these documents.
- Strategic planning and organizational development
Many young people have not led or been through a strategic planning process, and organizational development terminology can be confusing and intimidating. This can be an area where a coach provides help.
- Independence vs. fiscal sponsorship
Many youth-led projects have had a very difficult time with fiscal sponsors who, because of adultism, interfere with the integrity, decision making, and self-determination of the organization. Interference can range from not giving youth-led organizations the same access to resources as adult projects and double standards in accountability measures to blatantly trying to take over the youth-led project.
- Isolation & network development
Many youth-led organizations face intense isolation. Even if they know other youth-led organizations, mechanisms to share information and network are often missing. Developing support networks, learning communities and alliances is critical for young people and the broader youth-led movement.
- Documentation and evaluation
Few youth-led organizations have the resources or time to really document or evaluate their work. While nonprofit organizations are underfunded in general, youth-led groups are often more strapped. Having a reflection and evaluation process is very important to youth-led organizations’ healthy development.
Towards Organizational Sustainability
Besides the challenges, there is a global surge in the number of youth-led organizations surfacing up and it is expected to increase further. This increase can be attributed to a global recognition of youth in the decision-making process for sustainable development, growing focus on youth-led social innovation and emergence of conducive policies and support systems at international, regional and national levels. A systems approach needs to be applied to models of youth-led organizations to better understand issues around their capacity and sustainability. This will help key stakeholders including policy makers, inter-governmental organizations, CSOs/ NGOs, academia and private partners to develop support infrastructure to address these issues and help youth-led organizations unleash their true potential and contribute effectively.
Advocates for Youth (2008) identified seven components necessary to ensure a sustainable youth-led organization. These components are shown in Fig. 3.
In a study conducted by King’Ori (2012), she identified marketing, technological skills, education level and personal factors like gender and income level as some of the key factors which influence the sustainability of youth-led organizations. Sebba et al. (2009) developed a framework for youth-led innovation which can also be used to identify the key areas of focus for capacity and sustainability of youth-led organizations (Fig. 4).
At the base of the diagram are a number of drivers of youth action which may lead to ideas that are generated through youth activism (in the civic/political domain), social networking or communication by individuals or groups (in the cultural/subcultural domain) or product development (in the commercial and public services domain). If an individual or group takes this action forward (into the center), it may then be developed and have influence or impact socially, economically, culturally, technologically or politically (top of diagram) with potential wider social benefits. The facilitators and barriers that might operate in this process are outlined on either side of the framework, acknowledging that some barriers are simply the converse of a matched facilitator (e.g. financial support/lack of financial support) and other barriers (e.g. pressure to conform) may sometimes become a facilitator (e.g. through being a driver for political activism). SDSN Youth Report (2017) identified similar facilitators and barriers for youth-led action of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Most of the youth-led organizations fail to perform optimally or eventually become inactive because of the complex interplay of various internal and external organizational factors as indicated in the frameworks discussed. This makes it further difficult to evaluate and sustain impact of these organizations making it less probable to replicate or scale-up such initiatives. There is an unprecedented need to study these relationships at regional, national and local levels to fully understand the current landscape of youth-led organizations and sustainability implications of their activities. The research should look at and analyze successes and failures; consult widely with young people working in all areas of sustainable development to understand their needs now and in the future; and should identify the key approaches, challenges and opportunities for developing sustainable youth-led organizational models.
Advocates for Youth, 2008. The Seven Components of Organizational Sustainability.[Online]
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Advocates for Youth, 2009. Youth Leadership: Recommendations for Sustainability ,s.l.: Advocates for Youth.
Chigunta, F., 2002. Youth Entrepreneurship: Meeting the Key Policy Challenges,Oxford: Oxford University.
FCYO, 2000. An Emerging Model of Working with Youth , s.l.: Surdana Foundation.
Heinz Endowments , 2012. The Power of Transformative Youth Leadership: A Field Analysis of Youth in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh : Heinz Endowments.
Ilkiw, V., 2010. Emergence of Youth Led Sector , Toronto: Laidlaw Foundation.
Kahn, L., Hewes, S. & Ali, R., 2009. Taking the lead: youth leadership in theory and practice , London: Youth of Today.
King’Ori, E., 2012. Factors influecing sustainability of youth group enterprises: the case of small and medium enterprises in Nyeri town municipality, Kenya , Nairobi: University of Nairobi.
Movement Strategy Center, 2015. Making Space Making Change, US: The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.
Restless Development, 2016. Nurturing Youth Leadership in the Global South: A mapping of strategies, approaches, challenges and opportunities, s.l.: Restless Development.