Funding Youth-Led Organizations: A Call to Action for Donors

Why should we invest in Youth-Led Organizations?

We see young people as the future generation of leaders – the next generation of policymakers, advocates, and private sector leaders. However, young people throughout Central America and Mexico are already making change. Youth-led organizations shift public opinion in the interest of advancing policy change, greater social justice, recognition of human rights, and the fight against corruption and impunity in their countries. They form in different and diverse ways, including as organizations, non-registered groups and as collectives, and they take part in larger social movements, including feminist movements, sexual and reproductive rights and health (SRHR) movements, and climate justice movements. Beyond advancing their own agendas, youth-led organizations care for their own communities: remembering historic memory, safeguarding ancestral knowledge, recovering and uplifting stories of social and student movements, distributing supplies during emergencies and crises, collectively caring for families of victims of violent attacks, protecting resources and territories, sheltering vulnerable LGBTIQ+ people, and creating safe spaces for artistic expression.

Through Seattle International Foundation’s Central America and Mexico Youth (CAMY) Fund, we support youth-led organizations whose commitment and motivation has resulted in social and political change in their communities and countries.

Philanthropy and Youth

There is a growing recognition of the need to fund local organizations and groups in Central America and Mexico, as they catalyze authentic, systematic change in communities, which can then ripple out to larger-scale impact. Some donors are already providing unrestricted support for youth-led organizations. However, donor relationships with youth-led grantees can be fraught with power dynamics, complex reporting processes, time-limited funding, and the imposition of Global North and adult perspectives. Global North donors can be transactional in their relationships with grantees, seeing a grant as a financial means to short-term impact, rather than an authentic relationship to generate long-term, sustained change. As a result of past experience, young people have reported feeling not always comfortable with receiving funding from Global North institutions. We must do better in investing in and supporting young people to have the resources needed (financial and non-financial) in order to continue their work.

How to invest in and support Young People in Central America and Mexico

Investing in youth-led organizations, groups, and collectives not only enables young people to continue their activism and resistance efforts, but also can have a profound, long-term impact in the priority areas that donors seek to support. Supporting youth-led grantees aligns with many thematic areas, including: youth empowerment and opportunity, social justice, education, climate and territory justice, women’s and girls’ rights, sexual and reproductive health and rights, LGBTIQ+ rights, indigenous rights, Afro-descendent rights, journalism, and strengthening and preserving democracy.

Both small and large donations can have a major impact if they are strategic. Ideally, they will be flexible to enable grantees to strengthen their work in ways they see fit, and if restricted, to build on issue areas that the grantee is already working on or wants to work on.

When engaging young people and youth-led organizations in the region, we suggest the following practices for donors:

Apply practices of Trust-based philanthropy in your grantmaking to engage youth-led organizations, groups and collectives

  • Provide flexible, multi-year funding to youth-led grantees. General support that covers operational costs for at least 3-5 years enables grantees to apply funds where they are most needed. Sometimes these costs are as basic as taxis when public transport is not safe and internet connectivity, but they are crucial in fluid political contexts.
  • Project support funding that is flexible and enables innovation and creativity is also important.
  • Make any funding applications, progress reports, and check-ins required for a grant as simple as possible. Young people should be spending more time working and less time fulfilling grant requirements.
  • Not all youth-led organizations have legal registration in their countries (equivalent to a 501c3 status in the United States) due to restrictive NGO laws, fears of persecution for public knowledge of their existence, or preference to operate informally. Many unregistered groups have well-organized structures and processes, and are doing groundbreaking work – invest in them if you are able to, given that their funding streams are even more limited.
  • Fund youth-led organizations from indigenous, Afro-descendant, LGBTIQ+, rural, remote, and other traditionally marginalized and under-funded communities.
  • Provide support for youth and feminist funds that understand local contexts and can support young people’s work from a local perspective.

Work with young people instead of working for young people

  • Collaborate with young people as experts and co-creators, as they live in the communities that donors hope to support and understand the contexts.
  • ‘Listen to learn’ – they offer us a wealth of knowledge and experience that can inform our own grantmaking practices.

  • Create and maintain intentional spaces for young people to share their voices, ideas, and artistic expression. Let young people define what social change means to them. While young people participate in and lead public protests, they also express their resistance through music, art, and theatrical performance.
  • Allow for innovation, errors, and ‘failures’. What we may traditionally consider to be success and impact is not the same for them. Errors and failures offer rich learning experiences, and by holding this space, we are catalyzing young people’s efforts to heal trauma that impacts their communities and countries.

Build a comprehensive, authentic connection with youth-led grantees

  • Young people desire relationships with donors that go beyond a financial, transactional relationship. This can include networking between a donor’s grantees to build additional connections between organizations with shared values; lending in-kind expertise in areas where an organization may need strengthening, such as financial accounting or building strategies.
  • Philanthropic donors have a strong voice that goes beyond one issue or geographic area. Advocate and highlight grantees’ work and issue areas on social media platforms and in networking and conference spaces to increase investment to the region.

Invest in Storytelling

One of the most compelling and healing area of young people’s work is their storytelling. In addition to telling their own stories, young people reconstruct memories and honor their communities, cultures, languages, and histories, especially in places where they have been systematically erased. Young people are bringing these memories and stories back.

Support their resilience and wellbeing in addition to their work

Fighting for social and political change, particularly in a difficult and dangerous time, takes a physical, psychological, and emotional toll on young people. Many are balancing this participation with working in the formal and informal economy, caregiving duties, and completing their education. It is critical that donors offer support and resources for young people to build resilience, self-care skills, and have a peer-support network.

Continue to support movements even when contexts don’t look positive in the short term – they are the foundation for strong civil society when contexts improve

Central America and Mexico face unique, complex political dynamics – some hopeful in strengthening their democracies and rights at the moment, while others are dramatically backsliding towards authoritarian regimes. When there are limited allies in government, civil society remains the key leader in holding governments accountable and pushing for the country that the public desires. We must consistently invest to preserve civil society, including its younger members, so that they are present during hopeful and difficult political eras.

Prioritizing civil society is a long-term, system-focused approach that may not yield immediate political and legal change, but will build the structures needed to heal and stren-gthen countries when the opportunities arrive.

About the CAMY Fund

Seattle International Foundation’s Central America and Mexico Youth (CAMY) Fund, founded in 2014, focuses on supporting youth social movements, with a particular emphasis on organizations and collectives led by adolescents and young women to advocate for social justice, collective care, territorial defense, and sexual and reproductive rights. We currently partner with more than 50 youth-led organizations across the region, providing flexible funding and accompaniment support to each. Our grantmaking is complemented with other activities, including:

  • Implementing the Collective Care Initiative, in which we provide intentional spaces for young activists to prioritize and receive training on maintaining their physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing, among peers and expert psychologists;
  • Leading participatory research studies to build knowledge and understand the needs of youth social movements;
  • Convening young leaders across the region to build strategies and peer networks and practice Collective Care;
  • Advocating for youth movements on regional and global stages to increase awareness of work done in the region.