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This think piece was written in February before Aotearoa had to take action to respond to COVID-19. Its call to action, however, is as relevant now as it was in February, and more urgent.

Kathryn Nemec, Kate Cherrington and Sara Bennett

Across Aotearoa, many philanthropic funders have a long-term strategic focus on supporting child and youth wellbeing outcomes and express a general and positive interest in supporting innovation and initiatives with more significant potential for social impact and positive social change[i]. This focus aligns with the Government’s prioritisation of child and youth wellbeing and the significant cross-departmental work programme currently underway to implement the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy (2019) and reduce child poverty.

However, is this sense of ‘good intentions’ enough to respond to youth, their whānau and communities and the deepening crises they face? Climate-related issues have for the first time dominated the top-five long-term risks in the recent World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2020 survey[ii], and youth are the most alarmed – 90% ranked environmental issues as the top risks in both the short and long term. Young people’s wellbeing in the short- and longer-term futures will also be impacted by other significant issues, including the changing nature of work and employment, and increasing inequalities[iii] (UN Youth 2019), along with the most recent global pandemic. Tamariki and rangatahi in Aotearoa have also described the negative impacts on their wellbeing from racism, discrimination, colonisation and poverty.[iv]

As influencers and funders of this demographic group, the philanthropic sector is well placed to take positive action within this landscape. Do we need to more critically consider how the philanthropic sector can best support rangatahi, whānau and community wellbeing? How do we move beyond maintaining the status quo to practical, accelerated and radical action that genuinely enables youth to achieve their best life outcomes, in an environment of rapid environmental and social change? How do we put rangatahi, their aspirations, experiences and voices for environmental and social innovation and impact centre stage and up front?

Philanthropic funders need to focus on and activate their strategic intent to support child and youth wellbeing outcomes by aligning their investments, resources and funding with issues of relevance to rangatahi, whānau and community wellbeing. Some important concepts to enable this are:

  • The time for change is now: We tend to talk about climate change as something that will happen in the future but its significant impacts are evident in Aotearoa now. Vision setting, funding strategies, investment planning, budget forecasting and many other internal processes underpin funders’ decision making but they are based on a known future – which all signs indicate will change exponentially. There is a clear need to be disruptive and change current practice. What opportunities will emerge when funders stop what they’re currently doing on the basis that it’s failing to address immediate social, cultural, environmental and economic challenges facing youth and doesn’t facilitate their wellbeing? Could funders deconstruct the funding system that disenfranchises youth, and instead directly fund youth to achieve their missions for change and enhanced wellbeing, and then get out of the way? Should funding strategies be based on the potential for change and impact that is recognised by rangatahi, motivates them and is relevant to their experience, rather than funders’ perspectives? Funders need to engage with the immediate future challenges and then support and enable youth to thrive and enable change makers to emerge.

In order to achieve systemic change to the life outcomes of children and young people, we need revolution, not small-scale evolution. This means thinking radically about each sector’s collective roles and responsibilities. (Centre for Social Impact, 2018).

  • Empower and enable young people to have genuine decision making power: Revisiting funding policy about who and what structures can be funded can enable youth leaders, influencers and change makers to emerge – it also requires funders to be visionary, courageous and challenge the status quo. Participatory grant-making facilitates engaging with and making grants to disenfranchised communities[v]. Also known as activist funding, it is grounded in the belief that if affected communities participate in decision making, grants will be allocated to those most able to create long-lasting change. Funders are realising that the top-down operations of foundations often replicate the same unequal power dynamics in society that grant-makers are seeking to address[vi]. Participatory philanthropy provides an approach to grant-making that can address this issue.
  • Authentic social justice and equity: Grant-making through an equity lens involves redirecting funding and prioritising underserved youth communities, social justice and social change strategies, and general operating costs. This requires a strong alignment between values, strategy and action – if funders prioritise and value youth and their wellbeing, it will be powerfully demonstrated in their grant-making and funding practice as they change and challenge existing social structures and norms that effectively disenfranchise rangatahi from achieving their best lives. This means overtly challenging social structures that continue to implement the legacy effects of colonisation, racism and poverty. It is also facilitated by focusing on who is making the decisions and the age, ethnic and gender diversity of board members. It requires funders to be brave and courageous – otherwise the status quo will persist.
  • Trust youth and their opinions: The voice and opinions of youth can only be heard when there is a deep trust and respect for what they say. While youth are engaged at a community level, their voice can become tempered as it makes its way to Trustees. What does ‘trust in the voice of youth’ mean within funding organisations, and what does it look like in practice? How can all youth voices be heard, not just the ones that say what adults want to hear? How do funders overcome a sense of risk, when the risk presented by youth opinions is small compared to the reality of climate change?
  • Practice Tino Rangatiratanga: Funders need to prioritise rangatahi Māori taking the lead when it comes to their health and wellbeing in a way that builds on their strengths. Rangatahi Māori and their whānau have the knowledge, information and tools so they can affect the change and transformation that’s needed to achieve their best lives and whānau ora. Initiatives such as the Ihumātao movement and organisations like Māoriland whose rangatahi lead the protection of land and people, through amplifying their voices as Māori,and those from indigenous communities around the world, to activate rangatahi solutions around the restoration, maintenance and aspiration for their whānau and whenua.
  • Sustainability and intergenerational funding: Long term visions for fostering youth, whānau and community wellbeing are needed. There is evidence that sustained investment is needed to achieve systems change and to shift the dial on entrenched disparities and intergenerational disadvantage. This intergenerational viewpoint is a shared space for funders to engage with hapū and iwi, who have clearly envisaged intergenerational aspirations and strategic plans that will enable widespread positive impact in relation to the wellbeing of future generations.[vii]

In summary, funders need to act now and adopt new and emerging practices and ways of working. Building long term reciprocal relationships with youth and redressing funders’ power, leadership and authority to include youth, will help privilege youth views and perspectives about complex social issues, and their solutions, in a rapidly changing national and global environment. This approach requires funders to be nimble and agile and respond quickly, for the benefit of us all.

[i] Centre for Social Impact (2018). Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy Roundtable Summary. Unpublished report.

[ii] World Economic Forum (2020). Global Risks Report. 

[iii] United Nations (2018). World Youth Report: Youth and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. UN: New York 2018. 

[iv] Dawnier K, Bennett S, Cherrington K, Trotman R, and Nemec K (2020) Thriving Rangatahi: a review of protective and risk factors. Centre for Social Impact, Auckland.

[v] Hart, M. (2015). Who Decides?: How Participatory Grant-making Benefits Donors, Communities and Movements. The Lafayette Practice. 

[vi] Hodgson, J. and Pond, A. (2018). How Community Philanthropy Shifts Power. Grantcraft. 

[vii] Centre for Social Impact (2019). The Philanthropic Landscape: A Review of Trends and Contemporary Practices.