Insights from youth organizing and principles for donors

Movement building is typically not a donor-driven initiative. Rather, movements stem from constituents who are affected by an issue and mobilize to take collective action. But at a certain point, movements need funds to sustain themselves. This is especially true for movements led by young people, as well as other disenfranchised groups, because they are unlikely to have their own incomes or financial resources. 

This document outlines some key principles and ways of working that donors can apply to funding youth movements. It builds on lessons learned from the Torchlight Collective’s programming alongside youth-led advocacy coalitions, as well as experiences from other organizations. There are many different funding mechanisms, so utilize the principles that work best for your foundation. 

Work in partnership with young people to design funding processes

Involve young people when you are designing your funding program, including funding priorities, to ensure that it addresses their lived realities. One way to have meaningful involvement is to identify existing young leaders from the relevant geographical contexts and/or communities through a transparent and inclusive process, and then establish an advisory committee to help you through the steps of grant design, selection and more. Young people can also help you develop proposal formats that are simple and easy to use for their peers and support grant monitoring and evaluation. 


  • Compensate young people for their time as you would with any other strategic advisors

  • Accept proposals in multiple and local languages

  • Short-term grants make long-term planning difficult; provide reasonable funding cycles and multi-year grants when possible

Partner with the ‘key / affected populations’ of young people

Your funding priorities should be informed by the young people who are most affected by the issues on which you and your foundation focus. Those most affected are also those who are ‘key’ to addressing the issues. For example, if you want to focus on reducing unsafe abortion in a community, the affected populations would include young women seeking abortions, at risk of unwanted or unintended pregnancy and those having high unmet needs for contraception.


  • Seek out partnerships with existing networks of young people from the key / affected populations to understand their situation, needs and lived realities 

  • Include young people from these groups on any relevant advisory committees and ensure that they have the support to contribute effectively 

  • Make sure that the privacy and confidentiality of young people are protected and that others in your organization are sensitized to their particular needs 

Invest in capacity / organizational development

If you are funding youth advocates or youth-led organizations, then invest in their capacities or in organizational development. This investment allows funds for programs and activities to be more effective.


  • Invest time and effort into also building the capacities of adults in your organization on how to work in partnership with young people

  • Fund mentorship systems for young leaders where adult organizations or mentors support them through program planning, resource mobilization, documentation and communication, impact assessment, and due diligence 

  • Consider making capacity-building resources, including resource people (not just toolkits!), available that are specifically intended to help youth organizations apply for your funding

  • Build in decent salaries - young people who work hard deserve remuneration for their work just like adults

Fund holistic youth leadership programs

But first define it for your organization! Preferably as being inclusive, feminist, transformative and regenerative (i.e. gets younger people involved and knows when and how to age out). While there are many examples of youth leadership building, too often young people become the kinds of leaders that adults model for them without having the time, space and knowledge to shape new or responsive forms of leadership. This means that many young people want to hold on to power once they get it, much like the adults around them. This kind of leadership is not inclusive, feminist, transformative, or regenerative. The whole point of a youth movement should be that it is led by young people. Therefore, when young leaders age out, they need to be able to relinquish power to a second line of leadership.


  • Work with young people to define the youth leadership model that the movement wants to adopt

  • Enable youth movements to establish leadership and accountability structures based on the mutually agreed definition

  • Work with the movement to ensure that the young people in leadership positions are the best fit, not only based on age, but also other criteria co-defined with the movement 

Synergize and synchronize

Youth-led advocacy and movement-building has seen momentum for a few years now. Several different donors fund their own versions of youth movements, including iterations of youth engagement (e.g. “youth participation,” “leadership development,” “youth development”). Creating several pools of youth advocates can create unhealthy competition between these advocates rather than build solidarity for the broader causes. 

In other words, donors need to speak to each other. Building a cohesive youth movement – or youth movements across different regions, issues, and "populations" – is necessary for young people to bring about change. Ensuring that youth movements, youth advocates and youth-led organizations synchronize their efforts also demonstrates aid effectiveness and provides more sustainable impact in the long-term.


  • Pool together donor resources to create larger and more flexible funding grants 

  • Engage in donor knowledge exchange or establish a donor hub where good practices can be shared 

  • Create opportunities for young advocates to network with each other, collaborate and create a community of learning. This could be through in-person meetings and/or online fora.

Be transparent and flexible

Don't keep youth organizations on a 'need to know' basis about your funding systems and processes! Youth organizations need to fully understand where you are coming from and your theory of change. Try to also build flexibility into your funding systems to allow young people to make mistakes and learn from them, as well as access technical assistance along the way. Flexibility is also necessary because context is everything.


  • Ensure that your grantees are aware of the flexibility within the funds and view your guidance as supportive rather than prescriptive

  • Identify key resource people to support troubleshooting and problem-solving

  • Make your systems responsive to realities faced by youth groups and movements. Many youth groups are not registered or have financial entities due to lack of capacity, legal reasons, unsupportive governments, etc.

  • Use a combination of traditional (i.e. email) and new communication methods that are more youth-accessible such as WhatsApp and Slack

Be an inspiration to other donors on youth movement building

Other than specific participatory grant makers like the FRIDA Fund and the Red Umbrella Fund – which let their communities shape the funding priorities – there are very few donors that fund movements. If you want to fund a youth movement, then learn from the experiences of these funds, and create your own bank of learning for other donors to be inspired as well.


  • Document your own process of funding a youth movement along with impacts to contribute to the evidence base 

  • Talk to other donors about ways to work together and coordinate based on best practices







New and emerging approaches on radically transformative leadership

Solutions to the world’s most urgent problems – from climate change to economic, racial and gender inequalities – cannot be found at the same level of thinking that created them. 

Today’s generation of 1.8 billion young people has inherited these problems and are tasked with the challenge of finding solutions. However, very rarely are young leaders fully supported with the tools they need to radically re-envision our world and create sustainable change. 

Most current approaches to enabling leadership provide young people with a set of skills and support standalone initiatives. However, such narrow approaches are ineffective. Here are some common partial responses that we encourage young leaders to utilize and the consequences when implemented in isolation:

1. Finding narrow technical solutions to specific problems: Building effective responses can create temporary solutions for certain problems, but as soon as one problem is resolved, others emerge. This includes responses such as distributing malaria bed-nets, which stop the current outbreak but, by themselves, do not strengthen health systems to prevent future outbreaks. 

2. Changing social, cultural and political norms and institutions: Engaging in policy work and advocating with decision-makers is important, but often the policies that are formulated and the institutions that are built do not solve the problems they set out to tackle. Instead they often replicate existing power structures, get stuck in institutional paralysis or are sabotaged by underlying social, cultural or economic dynamics. 

3. Individual journeys of self-discovery: Consciousness-based training programs and books on self-awareness pave the way for some (usually privileged) individuals to feel empowered, to connect with others in transformative spaces and explore new ways of living mindfully. However, these initiatives by themselves do nothing to transform the planet or create social change at scale.

Each of these tactics, while incomplete in itself, is an important component of a new comprehensive approach that is now emerging that aims to simultaneously: 

  1. Build shared commitment based on universal values; 

  2. Shift policies, norms, systems and structures; and 

  3. Solve problems, in order to generate equitable and sustainable results. 

This new approach is “radical transformative leadership”, a concept developed by Monica Sharma, a former United Nations official. Sharma drew on her practical experience in development, as well as on the latest research in diverse areas such as social psychology, communications and systems thinking. 

More information is available at

This concept now underpins a growing set of leadership programs, including:

  • Leadership for Equity & Opportunity, by Rise Together in Oakland, CA (

  • Leadership for New Emergence, in New York, NY (

  • Stewardship for Radical Transformation, in Auroville, India (

  • Unleashing Full Potential for Social Transformation, in Mumbai, India (

  • Systems-Change Leadership, by EWB Canada, in Toronto (

These programs are designed to enable participants to develop initiatives that have the following characteristics:

  • Making the invisible, visible: Stimulates pattern thinking and connects previously unexamined systems factors explicitly to the outputs of the initiative

  • Shifting systems, solving problems while sourcing values: Builds alignment and shared commitment based on universal values to create sustainable and equitable change

  • Address complexity, simply: Develops outputs with the potential for generating significant outcomes while addressing complex systems

  • Leverage: Makes a significant contribution to addressing the issue, and is cost-effective

  • Visibility and measurability: Has the potential to gain visibility, and can quantify its key results

  • Relatively near-term results: The initiative can be long term, but also creates specific results in a six-to-twelve-month timeframe 

  • Not “business as usual”: Proposes a breakthrough in shifting the system, and at least one of the following: velocity, productivity, efficiency innovation, creativity, effectiveness, participation 

  • Not an “add-on”: Builds on existing initiatives and commitments; it is not about doing different things, but about doing the same things differently

But while these programs are rolling out around the world, few have focused on enabling youth leadership specifically. When thinking about funding, designing or selecting a youth leadership program, here are some questions to ask:

1. What are the unstated assumptions of the theory of leadership underlying this program? 

Some programs assume that certain traits result in leadership, and others focus on learned behaviours or proficiencies, with the theory that learning a few participatory skills can make someone a leader. Some approaches are transactional, while others offer an inspiring vision but without clarity on how to achieve change. Most programs assume that a certain kind of leadership is best, closing opportunities for young participants to explore different types of leadership and find the one best suited to their needs.

2. Does the program focus on knowing oneself and others differently? 

To be successful, youth leadership programs need to create spaces for young people to challenge their existing personal narratives, to create a more open and inclusive sense of self, and learn to interact with others through the lens of shared values, rather than narrowly defined social identities. Leadership programs that do not create spaces for personal reflection, challenge and growth cannot build skills for young leaders to create transformational spaces with others. 

3. Does the program foster a systems approach? 

Finding solutions to complex problems requires a systems-thinking approach that is able to identify root causes, map actors and interactions, and understand how multiple systems relate to each other. Young participants should be able to design solutions that transform existing systems and build alternative architectures for sustainable change.

4. Does the program provide coherent tools to make ordinary processes and spaces transformative? 

It is relatively easy to introduce new initiatives, but it is extremely difficult to transform ordinary practices, meetings and processes. Too many youth leadership programs are oriented solely around creating new projects. Programs should instead also provide tools and frameworks to facilitate change from within large organizations, institutions and structures.

5. Does the program provide tools and pathways for large scale impact? 

Programs must provide participants with operational strategies to scale ideas for immediate results as well as long term and sustainable impact. They should also provide tools and skills to build and expand networks, and to forge results-oriented and values-based partnerships across sectors and issues. 

There is an urgent need to build the capacities of a new generation of young leaders who can design and generate responses that draw on their most deeply held values, strategically shift systems and tackle the root causes of social injustice to create peaceful, free and just societies. We need to ask more of the leadership programs we provide young people. 

(References can be found in the downloadable PDF)







Things to consider when joining a youth-led coalition

Around the world, young people are leading sexual and reproductive health (SRH) movements that have the potential to create healthier futures for generations. In East Africa, for example, a wave of SRH advocacy is growing, with youth-led organizations in Kenya and Tanzania joining forces to implement SRH sensitization activities, hold their national and local governments to account and increase access to free and accessible family planning services. These youth-led coalitions are positioning themselves to change the family planning landscape in East Africa. 

The Torchlight Collective has worked closely with the Kenya Adolescent Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health Network (KAYSRHR) to collect insights on their experiences with starting and growing a youth-led advocacy coalition. This brief offers guidance and support to other young advocates or organizations considering starting or joining a youth-led coalition, specifically focusing on:

  • The benefits of starting or joining a youth-led coalition

  • The difficulties in starting or joining a youth-led coalition

  • The elements that contribute to an enabling environment for a youth-led coalition to thrive


For young advocates in KAYSRHR, there was a clear value to joining forces with like-minded groups, particularly for youth-led organizations who already have a hard time accessing resources and policy spaces. When unpacking the reasons for starting or joining a youth-led coalition, young advocates shared three main benefits.

1. Joint fundraising opportunities

“We felt we were better placed to fundraise as a coalition rather than as individual organization by leveraging on different organization's strengths.” 

With a strong coalition of organizations comes a built-in network of partnerships and allies that are automatically pooled from individual entities. This can be a fantastic opportunity for fundraising, particularly after the coalition has established their mission, vision and values. With a strong brand and strategic advocacy goals, fundraising for a coalition may yield more success than fundraising as a single entity. 

2. Collective leverage

“The vast wealth of experience and knowledge being brought to the table by all the young advocates.” 

Young people are diverse, from their education to their professional experience to their community context, and they offer different insights and opinions. Young advocates in particular are not a homogeneous group and have an array of knowledge and perspectives that can enrich advocacy processes. A coalition gains strength when its intellectual resources are pooled as well as its financial ones. 

3. Power in numbers

“If we can develop a collective voice that is strong, with many diverse perspectives represented, we cannot be ignored by government.” 

When there is a number of powerful voices united with a common message and priorities, there is a stronger chance that young people can impact policy. When a strong coalition of diverse and knowledgeable youth-led organizations come together to formulate a thoughtful advocacy plan and strategy, it is in their government’s best interest to listen, take note and make literal room at the table.


For young advocates in KAYSRHR, there were also clear difficulties to starting a youth-led coalition. Although a diversity of voices can enrich an advocacy process, a coalition can also create competition, ideological divisions and even add layers of bureaucracy. When unpacking the difficulties in starting or joining a youth-led coalition, young advocates shared three main issues.

1. Inadequate funding for advocacy activities

“We hardly had enough money to call for meetings, especially for members coming from different parts of the country.” 

Youth-led advocacy coalitions often have significantly less funding than other more seasoned coalitions, leaving young advocates with few resources to operate, convene and coordinate. Key components of advocacy, like hosting strategic meetings, transportation to convenings with decision makers, internet and phone resources, are basic work needs that youth coalitions may be unable to cover from their own budgets or pockets. When a coalition lacks basic operating funds, their advocacy activities become nearly impossible to implement, crippling their coalition and sometimes even halting activities altogether. 

2. Lack of buy-in or ownership from members

“Ownership by all members even from coalition leadership can be difficult because no one wants to be a volunteer.” 

When there is little funding to compensate coalition members, particularly those serving in leadership roles, it is difficult to ensure that members take ownership for the coalition’s success and fully step into their leadership role. Coalition members may have full time jobs, class, or run their own organizations, making it feel nearly impossible to find the time to focus on coalition strategy. When there is little investment from coalition members, or more members assume someone else is doing the work, progress stagnates. 

3. Potential for competition among organizations

“Fear of competition from other players in the coalition who feel like the network is going to compete with them for resources [is a major issue].” 

Although communal fundraising is a benefit of being part of a youth-led advocacy coalition, when this coalition exists in a resource-starved environment, competitive divisions may arise. At the core of a coalition is the idea that the success of the network is just as important as each of the members; but when the network gets more visibility than individual organizations, resentment may cripple the movement’s momentum. Oftentimes when a funding call is shared, it could be appropriate for both the coalition and individual organizations to apply. When there is a consistent trend of funding going to the coalition, leaders of organizations may resent the fact that their organizations are no longer receiving large pots of funding, but smaller portions of a shared fund. 


For young advocates in KAYSRHR, there were also clear investments that they believe could curb some of the aforementioned difficulties, thus aiding in creating an enabling environment for youth-led coalitions to thrive.

1. Adult partnerships

“Our mentors helped us to get organized and to establish leadership structures, mission, vision and objectives of the coalition.” 

Having adult allies who not only believe in the coalition, but also in the value of youth-led advocacy in its own right, is essential as they can aid coalitions in accessing resources, policy spaces and other opportunities. In many ways, adults holding positions in iNGOs, foundations, or the government can serve as gatekeepers to funding and opportunities for policy impact, therefore making their mentorship to the coalition extremely crucial. It is important to cultivate and leverage adults who believe in youth-led advocacy and are willing to share space. 

2. Funding for advocacy activities

“Funding has helped us do simple things like meet face to face to develop our strategy.”

Funding is essential to securing not only the material resources for advocacy activities, but also providing an opportunity to compensate young people for their leadership. When there is funding that covers the time needed to build a movement in a region like Sub-Saharan Africa, it empowers young advocates to focus on the success of the coalition without compromising their other pressing priorities. When there is funding for young advocates to host strategic meetings, disseminate their messages, and travel to participate in local and global conversations, it levels the playing field and opens up otherwise closed doors. 

3. Capacity-strengthening opportunities

“These opportunities create a platform for the coalition members to improve things like communications skills, and knowledge on running a coalition; as a result ensuring our advocacy work is more effective.” 

As is the case with youth-led organizing in general, young advocates greatly benefit from expanding their skills and knowledge. Capacity building opportunities – from technical seminars on SRH topics to trainings on policy reform – provide skills and also inspire young leaders to continue mobilizing for change.

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