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Quick Read Reading Time: 7 minutes

Relationships between Youth-Led Organizations, Donors, and NGOs

Recap of Connecting Conversations Theme 5, Session 4

On November 18, Knowledge SUCCESS and FP2030 hosted the fourth and final session in our concluding set of conversations in the Connecting Conversations series. In this session, speakers discussed critical ways to improve trust-based partnerships with youth-led organizations, donors, and NGOs to effectively improve AYSRH.

Missed this session? Read the summary below or access the recordings (in English or French).

Featured speakers:

  • Michael McCabe, agency youth coordinator, USAID.
  • Mariana Reyes, president, ¿Y yo, por qué no?.
  • Ana Aguilera, deputy director, AYSRHR, EngenderHealth.
  • Emily Sullivan, Adolescent and Youth Engagement manager at FP2030 (moderator).
Clockwise from left: Michael McCabe, Ana Aguilera, Emily Sullivan (moderator), Mariana Reyes.
Clockwise from left: Michael McCabe, Ana Aguilera, Emily Sullivan (moderator), Mariana Reyes.

How much does language/terminology matter when working in the area of youth engagement? What sort of framing do you use when talking about working collaboratively with young people?

Watch now: 13:27

Speakers discussed the importance of language in regards to working with youth, both on professional and interpersonal levels. Mariana Reyes spoke about the role of language in day-to-day interactions within an organization, describing how language affects the power dynamics between colleagues. Ms. Reyes explained how when language is overly technical or academic, it can be inaccessible and disincentivize smaller organizations from reaching out to larger groups for collaboration and resources. She further emphasized that the exclusive, “industry” language used in organizational settings can often signal that these spaces exist for a smaller, educated elite—keeping adolescents and youth from being empowered to participate. Ms. Reyes underlined the importance of inclusive language that is easily understood and not stigmatizing to the very groups it hopes to reach.

“Inclusive language towards youth opens up the conversation and amplifies our message; it gives a sense of belonging to everyone addressed and creates trust.”

Mariana Reyes

Ana Aguilera spoke about the ways language can convey intention. She described how language can illustrate where people are coming from in terms of background, understanding, and their organizational interests. Ms. Aguilera discussed how language is especially instrumental when attempting to clarify and demystify the “fuzzy” topic of adolescent and youth engagement with both internal and external colleagues. She provided the example of the Flower of Youth Participation, a framing technique that uses inclusive and youth-friendly language. This tool concisely describes what does and does not constitute meaningful youth engagement. At the same time, it provides organizations with flexibility and different ways to visualize what opportunities could look like for their specific target population.

Michael McCabe spoke about the necessity of learning the language of the community that your organization is working in. In this, he referred not only to the spoken language, but also cultural sensitivity and awareness of how language functions in certain contexts. In terms of engaging youth, Mr. McCabe emphasized that organizations need to work on strengthening the inclusivity of voices at a local level, instead of solely prioritizing the voices of national governments or international NGOs. He also explained that organizations need to learn the language of youth and vice versa. He highlighted the importance of teaching youth and adolescents the technical terminology that would allow them to excel in navigating complex bureaucratic organizations like USAID. Mr. McCabe discussed how language must be tailored to be more specific, rather than acting simply as rhetoric. He underlined the need to learn the language of the groups that organizations are working with to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.

“We shouldn’t talk about youth as a homogenous group. We must recognize and celebrate the diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality of young people.”

Michael McCabe

What are the values that organizations have that are critical to effectively implementing youth participation and engagement within organizations?

Watch now: 30:51

Ms. Aguilera spoke about three key values: reflection, respect, and inclusion. In regard to the value of reflection, she discussed some important aspects, including:

  • Questioning and challenging traditional methods and ideologies.
  • Making efforts to engage in ongoing learning.
  • Using insights to adapt organizational practices.

For the value of respect, Ms. Aguilera emphasized that within organizations the viewpoints and lived experiences of young people need to be as important as those of individuals who are considered “experts” in the field. She also spoke to the importance of inclusion, especially of young people who might not typically be recruited to participate in youth-led organizations or initiatives. Ms. Aguilera described how she has often noticed that the same groups, regions, and individuals are present at the decision-making table at meetings. To remedy this, outreach is necessary to engage groups that aren’t typically as well connected or easy to access.

“We believe that what young people have to say and contribute is valuable.”

Ana Aguilera

Ms. Reyes explained that it is important that an organization differentiate between their values and their interests. She also echoed Ms. Aguilera’s point regarding the lack of diversity in groups that organizations often target for engagement. As a solution, Ms. Reyes mentioned the need for decentralization at both the country and international levels. She also emphasized the necessity of evaluating how different spaces and sectors can intersect within youth engagement work.

“We need to not think of the youth perspective as something that should be shoved into a corner of our work, but as something that is present throughout all of our work.”

Mariana Reyes

What sorts of tools/instruments do you need to apply these youth-centered values in the work that your organization is doing? What sorts of ways have you seen values embodied in your work in this field?

Watch now: 43:23

Mr. McCabe described how organizations need to align their work with the “triangle of success, a framework that centers:

  • A robust budget.
  • Adequate staffing.
  • Tailored strategy.

He also emphasized the need for strong guiding policies, offering as an example USAID’s current overhaul of its youth engagement policy. He described the process of receiving feedback through listening sessions with young people and revising the policy so that it includes:

  • More accessible language.
  • Empowers collaboration.
  • Contains an accountability mechanism.
  • Ultimately connects with young people.

He also discussed several initiatives and tools that aim to expand USAID’s scope of partnership and engagement. The Youth Programming Assessment Tool (YPAT), developed by USAID, is available in several languages. It can be used by organizations to self-assess whether or not they are sufficiently promoting Positive Youth Development (PYD). PYD refers to a set of indicators surrounding the resilience of young people in terms of assets, agency, and access to civic or economic opportunities. Mr. McCabe also discussed the Global LEAD Initiative. It aims to support one million young global changemakers by focusing on skill-building and education as well as civic and political participation and leadership. The Global LEAD Toolkit allows organizations to examine how different programs have engaged youth in various sectors around the world. It provides information on how to mix and match interventions in a way that fits an organization’s unique needs.

Mr. McCabe also emphasized the importance of supporting youth innovation using collaborative learning and technology. He described how as a large and bureaucratic organization, it can be difficult for USAID to channel resources directly to youth-led organizations. To this end, the Youth Excel Initiative was launched to support the implementation research of youth-led organizations. Additionally, USAID’s YouthLead program engaged 50 young leaders from around the world to develop an online platform for and by young people. Through YouthLead.org, 14,000 young people host weekly webinars, create starter kits, and organize to take action on key issues in their communities.

Many organizations are trying to improve how they work with young people. To do this, many have chosen to incorporate novel methods of youth engagement, such as human-centered design. In your experience, do you feel like the strategies being used are really changing (i.e., are they really new)? What would you say to organizations that have realized they aren’t successfully engaging youth and are attempting unique strategies?

Watch now: 51:09

Ms. Reyes spoke about the ways in which the pursuit of complex, novel strategies can cause organizations to overlook smaller, simpler ways of improving youth engagement. She discussed the example of human-centered design (HCD), which is much easier and requires fewer resources than other methods; however, many organizations believe that it requires substantial restructuring of their program design. Ms. Reyes described how HCD can be implemented on a smaller scale, such as in conversations during meetings. By focusing on implementing changes at a macro level, many organizations ignore opportunities to make smaller, easier changes.

“Sometimes we can get so stuck on figuring out the ‘best’ way to do something that we overlook great yet smaller opportunities. When we do that, we miss out on key reflection points where we can think more holistically about how to work with young people.”

Mariana Reyes

Ms. Aguilera expanded on Ms. Reyes’ point regarding how organizations can miss potential opportunities and limit themselves by hyperfocusing on certain methods or models. She explained the need for organizations to identify their priorities and fully explore their options before deciding on a strategy. Ms. Aguilera described how organizations should tailor their strategies to align with the contexts and populations of youths that they are working with. It is important to collaborate with young people to discover what strategies would work best rather than relying on strategic innovations used by other organizations in the field.

Could you tell us a little about We Trust You(th)? What are we hoping that organizations and foundations can do with this initiative?

Watch now: 58:54

Ms. Reyes explained that the We Trust You(th) Initiative focuses on helping organizations modify the way they work with youth to create more equitable and effective partnerships. She explained that this initiative challenges NGOs and donors to participate in three workshops in the next six months (January to June). They will learn and develop ways to make specific and concrete changes in the way that they engage youth. We Trust You(th) is values-driven, but also focused on helping organizations develop practical strategies. These include:

About “Connecting Conversations”

Connecting Conversations” is a series tailored specifically for youth leaders and young people, hosted by FP2030 and Knowledge SUCCESS. Featuring five themes, with four to five conversations per module, this series presents a comprehensive look at Adolescent and Youth Reproductive Health (AYRH) topics including Adolescent and Youth Development; Measurement and Evaluation of AYRH Programs; Meaningful Youth Engagement; Advancing Integrated Care for Youth; and the 4P’s of influential players in AYRH. If you’ve attended any of the sessions, then you know these are not your typical webinars. These interactive conversations feature key speakers and encourage open dialogue. Participants are encouraged to submit questions before and during the conversations.

Our fifth and final series, “Emerging Trends and Transformational Approaches in AYSRH,” began on October 14, 2021, and wrapped up on November 18, 2021.

Want to Get Caught Up on the Previous Conversation Series?

Our first series, which ran from July 2020 through September 2020, focused on a foundational understanding of adolescent development and health. Our second series, which ran from November 2020 through December 2020, focused on critical influencers to improve young people’s reproductive health. Our third series ran from March 2021 to April 2021 and focused on an adolescent-responsive approach to SRH services. Our fourth series began in June 2021 and concluded in August 2021 and focused on reaching key youth populations in AYSRH. You can watch recordings (available in English and French) and read conversation summaries to catch up.

Jill Litman

Global Partnerships Intern, FP2030

Jill Litman is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley studying Public Health. Within this field, she is especially passionate about maternal health and reproductive justice. She is FP2030’s Global Partnerships Intern for the fall of 2021, assisting the Global Initiatives team in their work with Youth Focal Points and other tasks for the 2030 transition.