How to Identify High-Quality Youth Programs
Exemplary programs meet youth where they are and connect participants to a comprehensive set of services, delivered in-house, via partnership, or referral. Such programs understand that youth cannot learn if basic needs—food and shelter—are not met. Below are tips for donors considering funding nonprofits outside of those profiled in this guide.
1. Focus on the "trivial" details so they don't become insurmountable barriers.
Seemingly small barriers, such as not having money for public transportation or to purchase a work uniform, can quickly lead to job loss or homelessness for youth. The best programs strive to make it as easy as possible for participants to access support, whether by purchasing a bus pass or by providing coaches who physically accompany youth to appointments to, say, open a bank account, visit a caseworker, or go to a job interview.
Even programs that get government funding need philanthropic support to supplement services. This is because government funding often comes with specific restrictions on how those funds are used. Programs profiled in this report, such as Youth Villages, use philanthropic capital to create wrap-around services, develop partnerships and referral services, and/ or create small grant or loan funds. These flexible funds can then be used to help youth buy bus passes, work uniforms, school supplies, or other goods that may seem “trivial” but can become insurmountable barriers if participants cannot afford work clothes, materials, or transportation for work or school.
2. Anticipate mistakes as learning opportunities.
Young adulthood is a period characterized by testing relationships, taking risks, and often making mistakes. Researchers have long known that the brain continues to develop well past adolescence. Most notably, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that controls impulses and decision-making—is not fully developed until well into our 20s. Even more recent research has revealed that young adult brains are more susceptible to external stressors. Brains of young adults may act like more mature adult brains under normal circumstances. However, as external threats or stressors intensify, young adults are more likely to increase risk-taking and harmful choices. Vulnerable young adults often live under constant threat and external stress, thus science predicts they are more prone to risky behaviors and impulse control challenges.
The highest quality programs not only accommodate but plan for these scenarios. They leverage them not as reasons to exit a program, but to learn and engage in new ways. Successful funders understand that the path forward for youth is not without bumps. The organizations profiled in this report have built in second chances: If a job doesn’t work out, CEO, for example (page 10) allows clients to work short-term on maintenance crews until new, long-term employment is found. Year Up (page 14) structures participant internships so that both students and companies can “try each other out”—and many interns are subsequently hired. If, however, it doesn’t work out, participants still have access to Year Up’s coaches and services.
3. Seek data to clarify missions and improve operations.
Programs cannot be everything to everyone. The best programs know whom they are best positioned to serve—whether it’s the most vulnerable youth or those who need a little support to launch into new career trajectories. Success can be measured by change in trajectory and will not look the same for all youth cohorts. Programs should be clear about what success means for the cohort they are serving. In addition, the best programs follow the longer-term trajectories of participants and continue to gather data and evaluate success for at least six months to a year after the service period.
Youth in general are a transient population. This is especially true for low income, vulnerable youth. Even programs that wish to follow young adults beyond their tenure may not have the resources to do so. Donors should set the expectation to follow-up with program participants six months after exiting the program, and ensure that the organization has sufficient resources to do so. Many practitioners and funders note a continued need for both identifying opportunities to use data for feedback and iterative learning, as well as experimenting with ways to measure longer-term outcomes. For example, many programs measure college enrollment. But donors care not only about graduation rates but what happens to participants after graduation. Developing and testing new metrics and collection methods will require long-term donor investment.
4. Invest in ongoing, reliable relationships.
As youth ages 16 to 24 find their way in the world, relationships, or lack of relationships, have significant impact on emotional, mental, and physical well-being. All of the organizations we spoke with highlighted the importance of being available to support young adults with ongoing and reliable relationships. Clients of programs profiled in this report often cited relationships with staff as the most important component of their work. This requires investments in professional training specific to working with the target population, trauma-informed care, as well as investments in low staff to client ratios to ensure coaches have the time and flexibility to meet participants where they are, when they need the support. This can include but is not limited to crisis intervention (i.e., 24/7 on-call support).
Many youth have experienced relationships with adults, even well-intentioned ones, who have disappeared from their lives. The best programs prioritize long-term relationships and sources of support—whether that is in-house or through local communities. It’s important to note that for many youth-serving organizations, staff expenses can be upwards of 50% to 80% of program-related expenses. Professional turnover can be costly, disruptive, and difficult for youth enrolled in the program. By investing in funding for training and support, fair wages, and low staff to client ratios, donors can help programs retain and better utilize their most important asset—their workforce.
5. Create opportunities for paid employment.
Providing young adults access to paid employment creates opportunity to earn money to cover small dollar expenses and gain real world experience. Internships can be helpful resumé builders, and the best programs provide not only work and training but also a paycheck. Paid internships and employment are preferred because they help youth pay for basic needs and learn financial best practices in a supportive environment. What’s more, they allow these impoverished young adults to feel valued and give employers a bigger stake in their success.
Employers, such as those involved in the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, are beginning to recognize the long-term business value of hiring and investing in opportunity youth. Part of this shift in attitude is due to investments in creative public awareness campaigns such as Grads of Life, profiled on page 16. Philanthropists can help create additional training programs that lower the risk for potential employers interested in developing employment pathways for nontraditional talent.