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