Young leaders from Restless Development's Youth Climate Action Lab, India
Young leaders from Restless Development's Youth Climate Action Lab, India. Credit: Restless Development

Our powershifting journey from programme delivery to strengthening youth civil society: Will funders join us?

This year, the theme of International Youth Day is ‘Green Skills for Youth: Towards a Sustainable World’.

I cannot think of a better incentive to rethink outdated modes of funding than the future of our planet. Restless Development believes that if we want to get it right, then it’s critical that young people lead the way. But what are the barriers that prevent funders investing in an organisation’s gut feeling?

We are seeing welcome shifts in the world of philanthropy as funders respond to pressure to be more equitable, recognise their colonial history and even consider closing down as a result. We are also seeing a chink of light in the funding world; a gradual shift towards more flexible funding. But for youth-led civil society organisations and young activists it is not happening fast enough.

Unfortunately, most funders only issue programme funding that aligns with the interests outlined in their strategies. Likewise, the community consultations which inform these strategies are often rigid and unresponsive to the needs of communities themselves.

This narrows the scope for small and medium organisations to pitch programme ideas or design co-created programmes which power youth-led change. Our evidence reinforces this, with young people expressing that often their best innovations come about by trying out untested ideas.

Restless Development believes in shifting power to young leaders in the Global South. The significance of youth leadership cannot be overstated. 1.8 billion young people globally constitute the largest generation of youth in history. The success of the Sustainable Development Goals, global responses to the burgeoning polycrisis – including climate breakdown – and the changing face of work amid the rise of digital technologies and Artificial Intelligence will impact the future of this generation.

But the leadership and decision-making of young people is often overlooked or even suppressed. We urgently need funders to prioritise flexibly, investing in ideas and potential, rather than forcing youth-led change into predefined projects with rigid timeframes and objectives.

Why doesn’t transformative youth-led change fit with programme funding?

Richard Templar says; “the best frame of mind for planning and thinking is not the same as the one you need for doing” and I couldn’t agree more.

Responding to global challenges requires a more flexible, adaptable, and trusting relationship in deciding how resources should be utilised. Power should be shifted directly to communities to drive solutions that support their own needs. But community action does not happen quarterly, bi-annually, or annually; it happens daily. From experience, we know that traditional programme funding comes with the burdens of extensive strategising, planning, compliance, and reporting, making it harder to focus on creating transformative change.

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The Youth Fund, delivered by Restless Development in Sierra Leone and supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery, is a good example of how we are actively challenging the status quo. The programme directly funds youth-led initiatives, meaning Restless Development can channel finance, training and support to bring ideas to life. The programme recently supported two young men from Bo district to develop their own invention, designing and distributing solar-powered backpacks for children working outside the home after school to study after dark. Charging during the day, the packs are fitted with a light for studying and a personal alarm system for safety, significantly improving the educational outcomes of children in low-income communities. We want to do more of this kind of work – but it’s not always possible without the flexibility of funders.

What is the way forward for funders? Flex and innovate

In a survey by Impact46 of over 4,000 non-profits, 82% of them said donors should shift from project funding to unrestricted funding. There is a real appetite for funding to be transformative and not compliance-focused, but NGO leaders need more freedom to make resource allocation decisions using both evidence and guts. Diverse funding sources are important to NGOs, and increasing the ratio of unrestricted funding allows us to innovate and take risks or invest in areas that are a priority for the communities we serve.

Restless Development investigated the root causes behind youth Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) just surviving, not thriving, and learned that with tailored and needs-based support to recognise the diversity of ambition, youth CSOs can truly play a leadership role in the sector and do the work they want to.

There are many great ideas that die because of limitations in funding resources. This leads to organisations trying to be surviving organisations rather than inventive ones

Development Alternatives, Restless Development and consortium partners 2019.

From our research on the State of Youth Civil Society report, Young, Feminist and Fearless: Holding the Line, we know that the number one challenge faced by youth civil society organisations is lack of access to funding. It is impossible to restore power to young leaders unless we also shift resources. The way that we mobilise resources also matters. The redistribution of resources from donors in the Global North to young leaders in the Global South is a justice issue that is at the heart of our power-shifting mission.

Restless Development is committed to avoiding competition with youth civil society organisations, sharing resources, establishing truly equitable partnerships, and breaking taboos with our donors and partners. This means we partner with like-minded and progressive donors and partners.

Our ambition is truly global. We want to grow the Youth Collective to become the largest network of young people and youth-led organisations in the world, working together on some of the greatest challenges our societies face. For us to deliver on our ambitions and continue to shift power to young people, we need the right kind of funding. Flexibility and responsiveness are critical to delivering meaningful impact. We need funding that is as nimble as the organisations and young people we work with and we need funders who can trust our gut feeling on this.