Strengthening the Youth Sector:
Lessons for Funders, Leaders, and Boards
May 2017

Introduction

Most nonprofit organizations experience challenges with fundraising, leadership, and governance regardless of sector. That said, these challenges can be more pronounced among youth-focused nonprofits in the civic engagement sector. These nonprofits are, more often than not, led by young, first-time CEOs who are not only navigating everyday challenges new leaders face, but also confronting issues specific to their sector — e.g., lack of institutional knowledge; abrupt or poorly planned leadership transitions; young, diverse staffs; difficult board dynamics; and/or election-driven cash flow.

While the individuals and foundations who invest in youth-focused civic engagement organizations understand deeply how critical the work is, the unique set of challenges these organizations face is less clear. To provide deeper insight into how funders might lend additional support, the Youth Engagement Fund conducted a survey of — and interviews with — CEOs, board members, and staff working in the sector.

This report attempts to capture the spirit in which the feedback was provided: with a deep desire to share openly and honestly with funders to facilitate the improvements everyone would like to see. Most interviewed would like to see funders coordinate with each other better. Many want funders to work more closely with CEOs, boards, and staff to improve organizational health. Everyone agrees that the top priority is making a positive impact in the sector.

This report enumerates challenges youth-focused civic engagement nonprofits face, many of which are fairly basic. While this could give funders pause about the sector, it should be encouraging: The problems identified are solvable, and funders can directly contribute to solving them. Organizational leaders are not only open to, but eager for, any additional support or coaching funders can provide to help them do the work more effectively or efficiently. In fact, a few interviewees went so far as to caution funders to be wary of those organizations who refused such help or feedback.

Each section contains unfiltered, prescriptive feedback garnered through 33 survey responses and 14 in-depth interviews. This report offers a synthesis of the challenges identified through the survey and interview process, as well as a set of concrete recommendations for funders who want to better support youth-focused civic engagement organizations.

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