Listening to young people – the story of Youthbank

Young girl jumpingCommunity foundations were early funders of a great concept called Youthbank. I secured its first national coverage, in the Guardian. Shortly after, Abbey National got in touch to offer us £250,000.

Across the country, sets of young people have spent the past 18 months becoming philanthropists. Entrusted with five-figure bugets, and in one case a six-figure one, their remit has been to find and fund projects likely to benefit their age group in areas of profound social need.

The scheme is called Youthbank – Cash For Action and following the success of seven pilot programmes, it is due to go national in the next year.

“Youthbank encourages young people between the ages of 15 and 25 to become active citizens,” says its creator, Michael Norton – the founder and first director of the Directory of Social Change. “It gives them the opportunity to put money where they believe it will make a difference and be responsible for the decisions they make.”

At present, Youthbank is run as a partnership by a number of organisations with a strong commitment to young people’s community involvement. These include the National Youth Agency, the Community Foundation Network, the British Youth Council and the charity Changemakers. In addition to distributing an initial £185,000 in trust-fund grants to set up the seven pilot schemes, they have also played an active role in supporting them locally.

“The most important thing,” says Lucky Begum of the Shadwell Youthbank, “is that every idea is aimed at benefiting other local young people.”

In Northern Ireland the group has spread its net across the entire six counties while moving its monthly meetings from area to area so as to safeguard it from accusations of sectarian partiality.

The Troubles have also meant that Northern Ireland Youthbank members have faced some very challenging situations. “When we go out to assess a scheme, we divide into pairs – Protestant and Catholic together,” explains Tricia McNally. “It can be scary as a Catholic going into a Protestant area – you have to take care not to use the slang that can give you away. Even a simple question here such as ‘Where are you from?’ has to be handled carefully. Although we are never in any danger, people can be aggressive.”

Education is at the centre of all the Youthbank pilots. Each group receives a whole raft of specialist advice, ranging from budget management and accounting, assessing applications, communications and marketing.

Ashan Ali is a member of the Bradford group, which has already distributed £120,000 to more than 3,000 local youth schemes – its coffers swelled by European Social Fund money and other local grants. “I knew nothing about funding at the start,” he says. “All the training has helped me, and now I act as a mentor to others.”

His view is shared by 15-year-old Gina Mitchell in Bristol: “I have learnt how to look at an application and spot whether or not it really has been filled in by a young person – that is one of our rules.”

John Cabbot, at the end of his year 10 GCSE studies, is full of praise for the Bristol scheme: “It is excellent to be involved in real decision making – giving out money to others is one of the greatest things in the world, but it is also very hard to say no.”

The Bristol Youthbank was highly critical of the kind of application forms most youth groups have to tackle if applying for money. They spotted that demanding lots of bank details was just intimidating and also irrelevant.

“They would only need that kind of stuff if they were successful,” says John Cabbot. His group has distributed £12,000, whittling down 43 applications to just 17 for a payout. “But just because a group has been unsuccessful does not mean they cannot try for funds again,” says Cabbot. “We will contact groups that missed out and explain how they can improve their application next time – we are due to start another funding cycle soon.”

It is the long-term benefits of Youthbank that prove its greatest attraction to members of the consortium running it. “Not only is the scheme possibly creating the trustees of the future, but it is channelling resources to just the kinds of disaffected young people that adult funding agencies and governments find so hard to reach,” says Community Foundation Network director Gaynor Humphreys.

Her view is borne out by the experience of the Shadwell group, who helped two boys buy sound equipment to help train other aspiring musicians in the area and are now seeking more training themselves as their local youth work expands. Elsewhere, Youthbank money has provided for outdoor adventure activities for homeless teenagers in Bradford, cookers for youth centres in Bristol and non-sectarian murals in Newry, Northern Ireland.

One criticism all Youthbanks are sensitive to is the degree that those they fund remain accountable. In Bristol the group is about to embark on a summer-long series of visits to its successful applicants.

In Bradford it is Ashan Ali’s experience that people are eager to come in to show off the receipts: “They are pleased they have been trusted,” he explains. In Shadwell the proper use of funds is guaranteed by a simple message on the application form: “Don’t forget, we live in the area – we know where you are!”

This article, by Jerome Monahan, first appeared in the Guardian. The article also played its part in helping to position community foundations as ‘youth-friendly’ and locally knowledgeable – as a result of which they were chosen to administer the £70 million Children’s Fund Local Network.