Foundations Fail Youth By Design

To all the program officers cringing right now, I feel your pain.

Across the United States and around the world, there has risen a particular class of nonprofit organization that insidiously, if inadvertently, promotes youth discrimination. Through their giving programs, organizational culture, and leadership structures, foundations fail young people by design, constantly and consistently.

Starting in 2000, I have worked with philanthropies of all sizes and in many capacities. My experiences speaking at regional, national, and international conferences; consulting family and corporate foundations; contracting as a writer, evaluator, and interim program officer have given me insights into the field I want to share here.

There are three major concerns I have with foundations that serve young people: 1) Authentic youth engagement; 2) The culture of philanthropy, and; 3) Sustainability.

From the largest to the smallest, there is almost no foundation in the US that authentically engages young people by design. Of the growing number of youth philanthropy programs in the 2000s, many have been eliminated in the current economic climate. Glowing reports throughout the decade touted their efficacy and sustainability. However, those reports were devoid the grim reality that while several foundations hosted youth-exclusive programs, few if any integrated youth throughout foundations. Youth-driven philanthropy was also youth-centered, and when foundations cut youth-centered giving, they cut youth boards, too. The remaining youth-driven, youth-centered foundation programs in the U.S. today rely on the beneficence of their foundation’s regular governance boards to keep them intact. In such cases that their existence is secured by policy, youth are still segregated from adults. All of this severely hinders the authenticity of young people’s engagement in philanthropy.

The second way foundations fail young people by design is through their cultures. There is no philanthropy in the U.S. that actively addresses the reality of adultism, which is bias toward adults. Adultism is pervasive in philanthropy, as adult-driven, adult-biased philanthropic priorities are supported by adult-driven, adult-biased research which drives adult-driven, adult-biased grantmaking, the performance of which is evaluated against adult-driven, adult-biased metrics. I can find no evidence of any foundation that employs youth in regular positions. The rarity of youth-driven decision-making in philanthropies further understates the cultural reality of philanthropy. However, the way those examples are touted goes beyond decoration and purely objectifies youth, dehumanizing their contributions and grossly under-estimating their capacities. And this is only in the formal structures of foundations. I will say little about the directors, administrative leaders, program officers, and contractors I have personally encountered throughout my career, aside from suggesting there is an inherent anti-child and youth inclusive climate throughout the entire field of philanthropy.

Which brings me to my third point about how foundations are designed to fail young people. By their very nature, these organizations perpetuate a social pattern of youth segregation that is only 100 years old. This is an unsustainable trend, one that is beginning to erode as our greater society begins to reconfigure its institutions to reflect a new and growing consensus about young people: It is absolutely vital that all children and youth become woven throughout the fabric of community, both for their sake AND ours. Their contributions to the cultural, educational, economic, and political well-being of democracy are beginning to take center stage, as evidenced by several fields including philanthropy. However, stagnation is not acceptable, now sustainable. With the evolving capacities of young people continuously demonstrating their essentialness to social transformation, surely no foundation can justify their continued segregation through the historic excuses of inability or lack of desire. And some aren’t: I have heard more than one program officer say they have no interest in engaging young people as genuine partners in philanthropy. And I’m afraid that is indicative of the entire field, including boards of directors, consultants such myself, and many others. What makes this position truly unsustainable is the way foundations make it okay, even expect it of, their grantees. The organizations receiving money from foundations transmit this culture of age segregation almost unwittingly as their paternalistic funders refuse to revisit their apparent stance that young people are incapable. That is truly unacceptable, and clearly unsustainable.

Foundations fail youth by design- but there is a choice. And that’s another post for a different day.

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