By Nasra Ayub*
Programs and Partnerships Associate at Global Fund for Children
Reimagining grantmaking: Shifting power to young people
Imagine a society where young people routinely make and inform decisions of consequence – to neighbourhoods, to schools, to the environment. Decisions that address issues such as race and violence. In short, decisions that are in aid of the greater good. This vision is a reality, but it exists in pockets of opportunities available to a small number of youth. It is not the norm, but it could be.
I was 15 years old when I started volunteering with Integrate UK, a youth-led charity that fights for gender equality and learned about female genital cutting (FGC), which violates the rights of millions of women and girls across the world. I delivered peer-to-peer education, spreading awareness about FGC and influencing policy on safeguarding girls in the UK. This was when I realized the powerful impact of educating young people and of young people being educators.
I was 18 years when I was consulted by a former Prime Minister on why British authorities needed to revisit their counterterrorism strategy as it was further stigmatizing communities across the UK. This was a pivotal moment in my activism as it reinforced the importance of seeking expertise from a young person.
Through this journey, I have realized that young people are often overlooked when it comes to decision-making, especially when the decisions are about young people. I have also learned how much needs to change in order for young people to truly thrive.
In recent years, interest in participatory grantmaking has increased, with funders shifting power from the traditional ways of grantmaking to the proactive involvement of communities and other stakeholders in the grantmaking process. The realization that decisions on who gets funding and what gets funded should be a collective, inclusive, and participatory process is a step toward addressing the enormous challenges the world faces.
Although the funding sector is heading in the right direction in redefining interactions with young people and grassroots organizations, there is still much ground to be covered. Many decisions on who gets funding and what gets funded are still made in spaces to which young people have limited or no access.
Young people are setting up organizations and leading justice movements. They are at the forefront of tackling global issues across the world – from climate change to sexual violence. Yet funding processes are still largely decided by grantmaking institutions, which are not always in touch with the lived realities of young people and local communities.
What if young people decided who gets funding, how funding is given, and what issues are prioritized? This is the question that funding organizations should ask themselves as the sector shifts to trust-based philanthropy. We need to look at young people as not only experts on their own realities but also experts on their futures.
Young people have strong community ties, valuable evidence-based knowledge, and insights on community issues. In 2021, the organization where I work, Global Fund for Children (GFC), launched a youth-led participatory grantmaking initiative called the Spark Fund with support from the Avast Foundation. GFC recruited 40 youth panellists representing 15 countries to serve as decision-makers. These young people designed the grantmaking process in their regions and awarded funding to 56 youth-led and youth-focused organizations. The Spark Fund reinforced for me that young people understand the issues impacting their communities and have innovative ideas about how to address them. They have achieved and continue to achieve incredible things. They just need more decision-making power and resources.
To see how the youth panellists’ decisions differed from the decisions that older adults might have made, GFC also convened a mock panel of staff from different departments and asked them to come up with their own evaluation criteria. After reviewing the same applications as the South Asia youth panel, they chose 14 grantees, only three of which had also been chosen by the youth panel. The youth panellists, we learned, had selected grantees who might have been overlooked in a more traditional grantmaking process.
The involvement of young people in the design and implementation of projects is also an opportunity to increase funding for youth-led organizations. Young people have shared that, through the process of designing a fund and allocating funds, they have learned how to help their communities secure funding, make the process more accessible, and write winning proposals.
Traditional funding mechanisms and processes have also posed a challenge to youth-led organizations at the grassroots level. The application process is often cumbersome, with stiff compliance requirements and reporting procedures becoming a barrier to work. Young people, alongside their community organizations and groups, have called for a simpler approach to funding. Application processes should be simple, accessible, and designed with trust. This enhances the chances of youth-led and grassroots organizations getting funding, thus contributing to inclusivity and community-driven initiatives.
I truly believe that if you are young enough to comprehend the struggles that young people face, and be on the frontlines advocating for change, you are qualified to have a seat at the table and lead in the funding community.
*Nasra Ayub works across Global Fund for Children’s programs and development teams supporting the implementation of the Spark Fund, a global, youth-led participatory fund, and working to cultivate and strengthen donor relationships. Prior to joining GFC, Nasra worked in the higher education sector in the UK’s Office for Students supporting its artificial intelligence and data science program. In her spare time, Nasra works as an outreach worker and freelance journalist raising awareness on topics such as ending violence against women and girls and racial and social inequalities. Nasra is a recipient of the Diana Award 2020 for her work tackling human rights issues. She has a degree in politics and philosophy from the University of Bristol. Nasra is fluent in Somali.