Investing in the Power of Young People: 20 Years of Philanthropic Support for Youth Organizing–Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing

Throughout the 1990’s, young people of color around the country, many of them high-school aged, led campaigns for social change on a variety of issues, including fighting for the de-criminalization of youth and advocating for public education reform. Though their work drew upon a long tradition of youth movements for change, much of it was happening under the radar of institutional philanthropy. Barbara Tavares, president of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation at the time, recalls, “There was a lot of work that was happening on the ground from Mississippi in the South to Philadelphia to the West Coast. But it was invisible, disconnected, and underfunded.” Recognizing these challenges, a small group of funders with a commitment to youth organizing began initiating discussions about how to support and resource this work more effectively. Following a series of conversations with both funders and organizers, the idea of a funders’ collaborative began to take root.1 

Launched in 2000, the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing created a space for funders to come together with practitioners to learn more about youth-led social change efforts, invest in the field in a more coordinated and strategic way, and build out the knowledge base for the field (Sherman, 2002). Moreover, this new infrastructure helped connect largely local and regional youth organizing efforts into a national conversation. 

Among FCYO’s early investors were the Ford Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Ford and Surdna’s introduction to supporting youth organizing was representative of much of the funding zeitgeist at the time, which focused on youth development. Robert Sherman, director of the Effective Citizenry program at Surdna, helped move the foundation from a paradigm of youth service to the notion of young people as civic actors who can serve as powerful agents of change in their communities. Likewise, Inca Mohamed, a program officer at Ford at the time, recalls, “Ford was not funding organizing of any kind.” With the Foundation’s investments in youth development, however, she was able to make the case among her colleagues by framing youth activism as a component of youth development. This reframe aligned with FCYO’s focus on high-school aged youth organizers, distinct from activism by college-aged young adults. 

Early supporters of FCYO collectively engaged their peers in one-on-one conversations while also organizing funder briefings to help others in the philanthropic community learn the social change strategy of organizing, which was new to many funders. FCYO made sure that young people were at the center of these conversations. Nat Williams, president of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, believes this was critically important and helped create the space within philanthropy for “young people to represent themselves in their own ways.” 

In its early years, FCYO invested heavily in knowledge-building, supporting funder education and broader field-building efforts by publishing a series of reports through its Occasional Paper Series. In its first five years, FCYO produced eight reports, articulating models of youth leadership and organizing, describing the connections between youth development and youth organizing, and documenting the work of youth organizing groups across regions including the South, Southwest, and Midwest. These reports became essential resources that helped build the field by providing frameworks and documentation that could speak to the defining values and approaches embodied in youth organizing, as well as the impact of this work.