What do community foundations bring to the table when it comes to engaging with young people? How do they differ from or compare with NGOs that focus specifically on youth?
These were the questions up for debate at a global gathering of community foundations organized by the GFCF in Romania last month. It was the first time that we had brought together a global group of community foundations to discuss their work in the area of youth civic engagement. Data collected from our grantmaking over the last five years had shown us that, although many community foundations would see themselves as generalists by nature (i.e. they work on a range of issues that arise in their communities), there were several issues on which community foundations – regardless of size or geographic location – were particularly active, and youth was at the top of the list.
Today’s young people are faced with all manner of challenges arising from changing demographics (most people in Africa are under the age of 30, for example) and social and economic factors that are putting pressure on jobs, education, healthcare etc. and that often result in the kinds of disillusionment and disengagement that arise from all of the above. At the same it is also true that there is no shortage of civil society organizations run for or by young people.
Given the existence of so many other youth programmes and NGOs, then, why do so many community foundations see themselves as having a role in working with young people? Certainly, there are some fine examples of successful and effective youth programmes that have developed through and by community foundations. YouthBank, for example, is a model that was originally developed under auspices of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and has been successfully replicated in other parts of the world, most notably, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. The YouthBank model promotes young people’s involvement in community issues as well as individual leadership development by offering them the opportunity to be involved in the decision making process around the allocation of grants for small-scale community projects developed and implemented by their peers. In Cluj, Romania, volunteers in the YouthBank (a project of the Cluj Community Foundation) are also given the task of raising money locally for these projects.
In South Africa, the Community Development Foundation for Western Cape has found its PhotoSpeak project, which uses photography as a way for young people to express themselves – their feelings, their aspirations and their frustrations about the place they live – to be an extremely effective tool through which to build more meaningful and trusting relationships with young people who may otherwise be overlooked or excluded.
And in Belgium, the enormously successful MyMachine project – which links up the imaginations of primary school children who dream up their “ideal machine”, with the technical skills of design students who produce the blue-prints and then, after a selection process, the machines themselves - – was developed as a joint collaboration of the Community Foundation West Flanders and two other partners.
There is something indeed unique in the institutional make-up of the community foundation, with its emphasis on nurturing a culture of purposeful giving, and its use of small grants to support a range of local issues and initiatives which allows it to develop multiple relationships, with and across diverse elements of the community and to take the kind of holistic overview of a community which sector or issue-specific NGOs cannot not always do. When they enjoy high levels of local ownership and credibility, community foundations – and other similar institutions of community philanthropy – can serve as the “strong glue” that can bridge differences – of race, socio-economics, gender and of different generations. Would the Waqfeyat al Maadi Community Foundation in Cairo, for example, have found itself thrust into a position of community leadership in mediating between the authorities and the families of those (mostly young people) who were shot in Tahrir square earlier this year, if it had not spent the previous two years quietly carving out its own unique cross-community niche?
And so back to the Romania debate.... Amidst some sharp observations, eloquent speeches, and a lot of good humour, some serious points struck me:
- Through their programmes and structures, community foundations can offer multiple opportunities for youth leadership development and engagement which are quite different from other types of youth-focused NGOs. Young people can be involved variously as donors, decision-makers, board members, grantees, teachers and their actions need not be confined only to “youth” issues but rather they can also have a voice on other, broader community issues (by sitting on a grants selection programme for the environment, or taking a seat on the community foundation’s board);
- However, we are all prone to sticking to our silos and staying with “our own” (in fact, should we have brought youth NGO representatives to our meeting to inject a more specialist perspective to our generalist discussions? Perhaps our meeting was successful in affirming the roles that community foundations can play in regard to young people and strengthening the global community foundation network, but less effective in terms of thinking about broader coalitions and collaborations...)
- As an emerging global sector (and I am talking particularly about community foundations in Eastern Europe and the Global South), we need to get better at communicating our work and articulating the nature of the kind of trust-building and community-building opportunities we are engaged in and how that might complements and strengthen the efforts of others;
- And finally, the question raised in our debate was really a false dichotomy: there are good youth programmes, whose effects can be empowering and transformative and bad youth programmes where nothing in the end and neither community foundations nor NGOs have the monopoly on either. A much better question for us - as supporters and leaders of community foundations - to be asking ourselves is posed by Linetta Gilbert, writing in Alliance magazine a few years back and it relates to how we can bring about lasting and progressive change in our communities: ‘Do we have the courage and vision to be the glue that brings diverse people together to work towards their shared aspirations for equity, rather than a glue that keeps far too many people stuck in conditions that deny their dignity and deprive them of opportunity and hope?’