Adultism is Tearing Nonprofits Apart!

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As a consultant, I work with organizations that serve children and youth across the United States. I am regularly called in by local and national nonprofits, government agencies, foundations, and others to help figure out why their programs for young people are failing. Like an emergency room doctor, I’m called in after the wound has been inflicted in order to stop something from dying.

Why Child and Youth-Serving Programs Are Started

Before identifying why programs for young people fail, it is important to understand why organizations start child- and youth-serving programs. Usually, a well-meaning executive director or community leader identifies a need they believe they can fill by helping young people directly. Their reasons often include that it feels good to them to start programs, offers opportunities for new funding, or fulfills their organizational mission. It also helps grow organizations as they attempt to meet community needs more fully and directly.

Once the program is started, organizations set out to hire the best staff. Adults who work with young people are hired for many reasons. When they’re hired for the right reasons, they have a heart for young people, confidence, a desire to do the right thing, and are committed, sincere, flexible, and responsive.

Why Child- and Youth-Serving Programs Seem to Fail

After these steps are filled, there are a few essential components programs for young people have to have in place in order to exist.

  • Funding—Foundation grants, government funding, and individual donations are meager or non-existent.
  • Bad promotion—Outreach to the community and young people specifically doesn’t really happen.
  • Poor communication—Once young people are in the program, there’s no regular dialogue with them, parents, and other relevant people.
  • Undertrained staff—Adults who work with young people aren’t taught how to sustain and grow the program in healthy ways.
  • Low commitment—While everyone was on board in the beginning, few people stayed around when they were really needed.

When asked, many adults who work with young people will add to this list. Depending on circumstances, they’ll identify lack of support from org leadership; no genuine need in the community for the program that was created; lack of partnershipping among other programs serving young people; under-resourced; no written program plan or curriculum; no sustainability planning; underestimated program costs; poor or no strategic planning; no record keeping; no leadership transparency in the org; little adaptability in programs; mission drift; poor reporting; and many other reasons that are typical of failed programs of all types serving all kinds of people. I’m not going to keep listing these, because the U.S. government has a guide that covers all of them. There are also several guides from other organizations, and even an eHow article on how to do it right!

A few other folks go deeper when they’re looking for the challenges that sink their programs for young people. They uncover phenomenon like empty optimism or a “values vacuum”, where people have little actual depth in what they’re doing. They find competition is promoted while innovation is smothered, while organizations act like their alone trying to solve every problem in the world. All these are among the deep reasons why the things listed above happen.

I am not saying these analyses are wrong, but honestly, if everyone knows why programs serving children and youth fail, why do so many still fold today?

Why Do Programs for Children and Youth ACTUALLY Fail?

At the core of all failed child- and youth-serving programs is something so deep that its rarely seen, and so widespread that it doesn’t appear on almost anyone’s radar. The adults who serve youth directly in these programs, the org leaders behind these programs, and the funders supporting these programs are like fish that keep running into a glass wall but don’t know that they live in a fishbowl.

Those walls are made of something called adultism. Adultism, which I define as bias towards adults, is everywhere throughout our society. It is deep in our language, engrained in our culture, and infused in our institutions. Many people have focused on those components, as a simple google search will show. However, we rarely expose how deeply it affects everyone, including the people who are trying to serve young people in beneficial ways.

Adultism is imbedded in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of organizations. It reinforces individual bias towards adults and is reinforced by those biases in turn. The term is typically used when discussing the treatment of children and youth by adults. Adultism can be expressed through low expectations for young people or the failure of young people to advance our communities. There are no laws against adultism, and it is all around our society. Once you’re aware of it, adultism is obvious in our language, activities, policies, evaluations, attitudes, and ideas.

There are many ways adultism causes programs to fail that I’ve explored throughout this series of articles.

How Programs for Young People Can Succeed

Undoing adultism should always begin on a personal level. However, in order to truly commit to making sure programs succeed, organizations have to commit to change. Some steps that can be taken include:

  • Training—Providing organization-wide training on adultism, discrimination against youth, ephebiphobia, and adultcentrism.
  • Confronting—Committing to ending and confronting adultism throughout the organization structure and culture, in policies, activities, language, and outcomes.
  • Eliminating—Not creating barriers to the full and equitable involvement of young people in services and activities.
  • Infusing—Make deliberate space for the full and equitable involvement of young people in all decision-making processes at all levels of the organization.
  • Educating—Support the hiring, retention and professional growth of young people throughout the organization.
  • Sustaining—Prioritize staff training and communications to ensure that they understand the impacts of adultism and that the organization delivers all services in a competent manner.

There is a lot to learn about adultism. You can find my in-depth thinking about adultism on my own blog. Paul Kivel, John Bell, and Theresa Graham are among the adult authors who’ve written substantial articles about the topic. You can also join the facebook group called “I Fight Adultism!” for all kinds of conversation about the topic.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

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