Reflections on Funding Youth Employment

Seumas Fantham reflects on eight years of funding youth employment initiatives in Aotearoa.

When I first started at the Todd Foundation, I held the youth portfolio. I had also come from a youth development background, so had many years’ experience walking alongside young people in their journey to employment.  If they were successful, it was a stepping stone towards independence, and if not then they were cast back to the stigmatising label of being a NEET, a category that defines you based on what you are not (Not in Education, Employment or Training). 

Due to a range of systemic reasons, often beyond a young person’s control (i.e. automation disrupting many jobs, people retiring later) entry level work opportunities for young people have changed over time, and the first step into work is becoming increasingly daunting for many.

In 2014, the Todd Foundation was searching for a special focus area, where dedicated funding over a longer period of time could make a large impact. Trustees decided that if there was one area that could make an exponential impact for young people it was in supporting their transition to meaningful work.  Below are some reflections on an eight-year journey walking alongside community leaders with a passion for youth employment, and what we have learned along the way.

What we did

It’s worth noting that the Todd Foundation has a long history of supporting young people over the past 50 years. Previous programmes we supported included mentoring and youth leadership programmes, and other worthy projects that assist young people to ‘beat the odds’. However, beating the odds kinda sounds like constantly having to swim upstream while we all simply cheer them on. We started to question how we might help ‘change the odds’.  I was given time to go out and connect with communities, thought leaders and other funders throughout New Zealand to see what was working well at a local and national level to support young people into work. We also gained a good understanding of how our role as funders can enable or disable collective community innovation and solutions.

We were inspired by collective models such as the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs that utilised a ‘whole of community youth to employment strategy,’ reducing fragmentation, competition and enabling more trust and collaboration amongst key community stakeholders.  We asked ourselves - what type of funding model and funding relationships are required to support community-led strategies, which are dynamic and constantly adapting over time?

Under the leadership of our former Executive Director Christina Howard, and a supportive board, we decided on a five step approach and set our sights on long-term systemic change in this space.  We put the call out to communities and local funders and turned up for some informal kōrero. We connected with communities experiencing high youth unemployment and low philanthropic funding. We were also keen to connect with communities interested in exploring what a collective strategy to support youth employment could look like. It is fair to say some community organisations preferred to seek funding for their individual programmes only and weren’t too keen on adding a collaborative layer of complexity to their work, which we understood and respected.

In many instances, communities told us that they didn’t need outsiders coming in to facilitate their collective mahi. They already knew who the key influential leaders were in their community, and what had been tried before. One person said, “We don’t like those UFO programmes, which magically appear out of the sky… they come down with all the answers, models, stay for a while, and then up and off again”.  Some communities had already run collective hui, so they didn’t want to simply repeat the same process, but they were keen for funders to engage and better understand their plans and ideas.

For communities who signified an interest in coming together, we first offered resources for them to convene and facilitate collective conversations.  There was real value in providing resources up front for community to engage, sometimes in a neutral setting and provide good kai to help loosen the jaw, leading to rich conversations.  Communities have told us that convening is seldom funded but provides them with space and time to connect with each other, clarify priorities/ideas, leading to creative and meaningful solutions.

When communities started to share their thinking, we asked how we could support the strategies that they were developing, and which elements Todd Foundation funding could best support and asked for one proposal with support from a wide range of stakeholders.

In each region we made annual funding available for projects, convening, capability and evaluation.

We worked with four community partners:

1.    Eastern Bay of Plenty: Workforce Development, TOI-EDA case study 

2.    Lower Hutt, Wellington: Youth Inspire case study

3.    Tairāwhiti: Trust Tairawhiti case study

4.    Tairāwhiti: Tāiki E! case study

Over eight years we invested $3.2m into high-trust relationships and youth employment initiatives in these regions.  Communities had ideas and local networks, and we trusted that they were best placed to make it all work.  These high trust relationships were reciprocal in nature and existed at multiple levels - between our trustees, staff and community. After many years of working in this way, I can’t imagine any of this working without that key ingredient of trust.

Rather than asking for time consuming written reports, we provided a space for leaders from each of the regions to come together every year to share what was working well, the challenges that inevitably arise over time, and to explore/workshop new ideas. These annual learning hui were useful to understand how their strategies were iterating, and where their plans and initiatives needed to shift to next. A game-changing learning for us was that communities are dynamic. They need to adapt to their constantly changing environments in real time. Like a yacht tacking and gybing when the wind changes direction. In this sense a stagnant strategy isn’t always useful to hold them to, and it can age very fast, but enabling flexibility for community to iterate and adapt to their changing conditions just makes sense.

Looking back now, these are the lessons that really stand out for me:

  • Local leaders are the real gold in successful collaborations
  • Sometimes the small shifts can make a huge impact – like supporting young people to get driver’s licences or understanding employer needs and mindsets when taking on young people.
  • Increase trust, and reduce bureaucracy.  If you have decided to trust and partner with a community – follow that through.
  • Increase your knowledge of what the community is already doing well.
  • As funders - invest more time into listening and become comfortable ceding power. Figure out what would work for your community partners, and then get out of the way and let them get on with it.
  • Young people can make changes too, and can and should be involved in making decisions that affect their futures (nothing about us without us).
  • Know the non-monetary contributions you can provide to local initiatives where required/requested (for example time, networking, links to other resources, feedback, advocacy)
  • Sharing IP was great, and the wheel didn’t have to be reinvented e.g., Licence to work was an initiative run in all 3 regions.
  • A supportive foundation board enabled us to work in this high-trust way. They could see the benefit of this approach.

Some of the challenges:

  • Collaboration can be messy and slow, and it will operate on its own timeline – but if done well, it pays off.
  • It’s quite normal for key people to move on at some stage and it’s important to make time for new relationships.
  • In many cases, investing in the early stages of a collective initiative could mean that you may not be there to see the long-term outcomes harvest.  This is not so much a con as long you are happy to play the early start-up supporter role, can step back as as it ripens and grows, making way for other funders and supporters.
  • In the early messy stages, it can be challenging to measure impact, so it is important to have a skilled learning partner/evaluator who can help capture what appears to be small shifts in the beginning which can grow to become transformative shifts in the future.

Like most philanthropic funding, we are never going to be there long-term, and we highlighted this at the beginning.  Along the way we have co-funded with City Council and Central Government, and some groups leveraged our funding to pilot projects which were scaled up by other funders. As time goes by, our funding became a smaller part of the wider picture.  It’s a strange feeling being one of the biggest contributors at the start to becoming one of the smallest towards the end, almost to the point that we could subtly slip out the back door and not many people would actually notice.  But maybe that’s a sign of a healthy transition, our community partners are self-sufficient, and we are no longer required.

We are now releasing some learning reports and case studies on the communities we partnered with (read them here). Below is a table that summarises the shifts recommended for funders (not just from our perspective), but also from our evaluation partners and those in the communities who led these initiatives. If you are considering funding in youth employability, community-led development or systemic change initiatives we hope the table below is useful. If you want a quick win – do feel free to connect with the groups, we partnered with – we can give a great reference for them all!

As a final note, while the sun is setting on our focus on place-based youth employment, (and we start to pack up our UFO!),  the insights from this project continue to inform our work today. While we are no longer funding many of these groups we keep in touch and seek their sage wisdom from time to time. In the current chapter of the Todd Foundation, we have a national level focus supporting groups like Youth Employability Aotearoa and the Driving Change Network which our place-based community partners are part of. Through our work in the regions we developed a deeper understanding of some of the national level challenges that affect youth employment - That is why we are now focused on change at the national level.