Integrating the Youth into the Philanthropy System

Yogavelli Nambiar is the CEO of Niara Advisory

Youth are shaping our world

The word “youth” is often used as a broad, sweeping catch-all term with little segmentation or differentiation in how we think about and understand this diverse group. In philanthropy, youth are frequently viewed primarily as passive recipients of development and support, overlooking their agency and potential for active engagement in shaping their own futures.

Yet, the youth are thinkers, advocates, activists, designers, grantors, social entrepreneurs, builders, writers, business movers and shakers and so much more. They possess a wide range of talents, skills, and aspirations that can drive meaningful change in society.

In South Africa, the youth are typically defined as individuals between the ages of 14 and 35. This age range encompasses a remarkable group of individuals who are making significant contributions in various fields. Think about Melvyn Lubega, Theo Baloyi, Candice Chirwa, Shaeera Kalla, Lauren Dallas, Karidas Tshintsholo and so many others. They are builders of empires, they are solvers of problems, and they are the creators of movements. All under the age of 35.

It is therefore vital for those working to achieve sustainable social change to include the youth in decisions that involve them, and ensure that their voices are heard, their presence felt, and their fresh thinking activated to co-create solutions with deep appreciation of the value that this will contribute.

Intergenerational partnerships recognise the wisdom, social capital, and ability to create connections in knowledge across a range of issues that come with being more experienced in any sector; likewise, young people bring innovative thinking, an openness to risk, experimentation and agility with trends that shape the way the world is moving. This combination of hard-won, evidence-based expertise together with the innovative, new, unconventional thinking will be what is needed to address the critical challenges we face.

Optimising the contribution of youth 

As decision-makers allocating capital and accountable for reporting on “return on investment”, philanthropy leaders should not shy away from the depth of engagement required with youth, out of fear that it is reckless or time-consuming. We need to ask ourselves the hard questions.

  • What are we sacrificing by not bringing in the voices and ideas of those we seek to develop and support?
  • Do we actively seek directors who are under-35 for foundation and other non-profit boards?
  • How are we ensuring that the youth are active in envisioning and co-creating safe and stable environments that they can flourish in?
  • What is the scale of change we are willing to make if our constituency of youth advisors tell us our interventions are not working?
  • How do we ensure, irrespective of the issue or challenge we are working on, that we are connecting, celebrating, supporting, and developing youth to feel hopeful and to be proactive contributors despite the various complexities and challenges that face the country and continent?

Furthermore, it is important to recognise that the youth are not solely recipients of grant funding. There is a growing recognition that cultivating a new generation of philanthropy givers and leaders is essential. This involves encouraging, accessing, and supporting young individuals to actively participate in philanthropy, contributing their resources, skills, and ideas.

Over time, philanthropy has evolved into a field that exhibits a certain level of structure and common practices. Interestingly, it is also a sector that people have found their way to, often without a specific qualification, sometimes without any related experience, perhaps even without an initial aspiration to, and certainly without any training on models, theories of change or concepts such as systems thinking. Leaders in the social space have traditionally traded more on the value of their hearts and the passion of their commitment rather than any deep academic knowledge or expertise in the area.

Cultivating a next generation of leaders in philanthropy

Given the evolving nature of philanthropy and the diverse backgrounds of individuals entering the sector, it becomes increasingly important to consider the development of the next generation of foundation leaders. This involves being intentional about attracting young people to the sector, providing support for their growth and development within existing entities, and actively capturing and transferring intellectual capital.

In the USA, a study by payment app Zelle indicated that the millennial population were the biggest givers of any generation since the Covid-19 pandemic began with almost 75% providing financial support to family, friends and non-profits. This prompts consideration of young philanthropists on the continent, whether they inherit family wealth or actively choose to give back as they advance in their careers. With a heightened sense of social responsibility, in addition to giving their own time and money, young givers are also able to use creative methods of getting funding support through, for example, crowdsourcing. They also raise awareness towards their cause of choice and are highly engaged in issues they’re involved with.

The young philanthropists that I have interacted with globally prioritize impact over reports filled with fancy diagrams and impressive numbers. They value personal accounts of tangible change that can be measured, experienced, and actively engaged with. They’re interested in data to make informed decisions but equally want real conversations where grantees feel comfortable enough to openly discuss failures. They are also more inclined to embrace experimentation and support issues that traditional funders may avoid. They are open to engaging in conversations about decolonizing philanthropy and addressing power dynamics between grantors and grantees.

Understanding next generation giving  

So, as current leaders in philanthropy, how are we creating relationships with this next generation giver? If we, and others in the philanthropy, development and non-profit sectors seek to partner with this emerging group, what are the points of reflection on approach, methodologies used and platforms of engagement?

What is the reality that next generation givers will be responding to?

With a median age of 19.7 in 2020, Africa’s population is already the youngest in the world. Yet, in a research brief published by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the quality of basic, secondary and tertiary institutions in Africa has deteriorated between 2013 and 2017, with only one country on the continent, Togo, showing improvement during that time. Besides the worsening education prospects, the paper speaks to the mismatch between education provision and job markets, citing that only about 1% of 15–24-year-olds in sub-Saharan Africa participate in vocational education programmes. And the critical challenge of high unemployment among the youth is always front of mind – listed as 55% in the Foundation’s paper but rising to 62.1% in the first quarter of 2023 in South Africa, the second biggest economy on the continent.

While employment preparation and skills development programmes are important, the reality is that we need to prepare young people to be job creators rather than job seekers. We need to inspire them to have a different lens on the world, one that enables them to engage with their environment with curiosity and a learning orientation, to identify opportunities to the problems they see and to know they have the ability to take action. We need to ensure that they are taught differently, and that the narrative around how they can add value in the world diversifies beyond the one path of employment. This is a narrative that can be fed through philanthropy’s interventions across any issue – healthcare, climate change, education, etc. – and will supplement what is already being achieved.

Youth at the centre   

As we can see, the dynamics of the emerging young African philanthropists are juxtaposed with the dire reality of the many who are being left behind. This tension, arising from the optimism fuelled by the exceptional individuals who succeed against all odds, and the despair caused by the significant underserved population, is an ongoing struggle for those in the social sector. By actively involving both young African philanthropists and the underserved youth as active participants and creators of their own future, philanthropy and the development sector can undergo a transformative shift. Recognizing the importance of integrating their needs, aspirations, and perspectives, philanthropists can harness the agency and potential of young philanthropists while ensuring that the voices and experiences of the underserved youth shape philanthropic efforts. This collaborative approach could lead to more inclusive and impactful philanthropy that addresses diverse needs. Regardless of where you sit within the philanthropy and larger social sector, the youth are integral to decisions being made and solutions being found. It is vital that initiatives to support, include and develop them are at the forefront of all our efforts or we may find that, in trying to focus on solving the very-important present challenges, we have compromised the prospects of our future generations.


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