In 2008, I was touring with one of Canada’s foremost youth leadership development organizations when I met Joshua. At the time, Joshua was an elementary school student in Alberta. He was selected by his teachers to attend a workshop designed by the organization that I was facilitating. The workshop, called “Gift Plus Issue Equals Change”, encouraged youth participants to reflect on their own talents, and direct these talents toward a social issue of importance to create a project that would foster social change. At some point during our tour, we began to recognize that the “change” in the equation more often equaled literal change (currency) for the organization hosting the workshop than the insightful programs I was hoping would be created within the host schools. In other words, most students ended up designing a fundraiser. And I shouldn’t have expected anything any different. Why? Because prior to our workshops, we had just finished giving an hour-long presentation about the organization’s work abroad and the dire need for funding.
Joshua, challenged the “Gift + Issue” model. Joshua’s issue was elderly abuse. His grandmother had just suffered through a traumatic incident at a care center and had been moved to a new housing facility close to the elementary school where we were conducting the workshop. His gift? Gardening. After 20 minutes of brainstorming, Joshua returned to me with his plan. Using the soil created by the school’s composting program, Joshua would visit his Grandmother with his class and hold a regular gardening program combining the student population with the retirement home’s population. I was touched by Joshua’s thoughtfulness. But therein lies the challenge to our leadership training model. Although Joshua created a completely innovative project, apparently the goal of our “training”, his vision required funding from an organization or institution rather than generating funding for an organization. Joshua didn’t want to simply fundraise. Joshua wanted to lead. Ironically, our program couldn’t facilitate the change he was trying to create.
Following the tour, I kept thinking back to Joshua and wondered if our many youth engagement organizations and programs were doing a disservice to our young leaders. Most youth focused programs do not evaluate their own programming or, curiously, will report the impact of their programs in terms of dollars raised by youth, but not what the organization has contributed to young people in terms of real leadership skills and experience. What would happen if we reversed the flow of fundraising between youth and youth-focused organizations?
The present model is fundraising specific. Funds are generated by youth that ultimately flow out of their communities and to external organizations. The most common of these fundraising efforts, packaged as “leadership training”, are hosted by international organizations that use these funds abroad. While the funds themselves may be used for social change overseas, the truth is that fundraising initiatives rarely create the experience necessary to foster a lasting impact or change in values held by young people.
A new approach, if organizations are serious about their leadership rhetoric, would be to generate funds for youth-led community initiatives. As soon as funds are placed in the hands of a young leader, the context of leadership training is completely transformed. A successful initiative would require vision, project management skills, leadership structure, risk management, a need for securing mentor relationships, research, monitoring and evaluation, and continuity. Joshua’s project is a microcosm. Imagine organizations seeking out Joshuas around the country and providing them with the training and funding necessary to create and maintain a project that the students themselves have envisioned. What would create more lasting change in Joshua’s life and the lives of his peers; a bake sale, or leading a community initiative of their own making with the local retirement home?
Millions of fundraising dollars are being generated in our high schools and elementary schools by young leaders who are being told they are creating change. Fundraising is a low level form of engagement and moreover, little account is given to youth as to the impact of their donated dollars. We cannot keep selling fundraising programs as leadership training. If we are truly looking to fertilize a new generation of social entrepreneurs, business leaders, and innovators, we need to think critically about who is monopolizing access to our school systems and who is providing resources and funds to fuel youth leadership; not simply capitalize on it.