Loosening the Evaluation Stranglehold

Every day, young people around the world—including Pittsburgh and all of Allegheny County—struggle to connect in meaningful ways to the world around them. They’re yanked on and dragged around by the adults in the lives, being sent to school, dropped off in after school programs, made to come to dinner, forced to kiss their great aunt Bertha… They struggle to make those connections meaningfully.

In the meantime, businesses are marketing products to children and youth like never before, selling them on the notion that they can connect to their favorite brand all over the place, all the time, and that’s all that matters. Every young person seems to know what Hershey’s candy bars are. iPhones, Nikes, Forever 21, and Facebook have extremely engaged youth consumer bases.

Some people think nonprofits need to act like those businesses. Many youth-serving organizations are being pressured to reform the ways they serve their constituencies according to the philosophies of people like Dan Pollota and funders who demand the usage of the Youth Program Quality Assessment. The intention of many folks who promote the stance that nonprofits need to be business-like, emphasizing accountability, ROI, and similar strategies, is well-meaning. Indoctrinated by business profiteers who fund philanthropies, many nonprofits are struggling to meet these expectations.

There’s a simpler way to go, and all afterschool programs should go for it.

In the ancient Greek empire, philosophers often sought to promote core values rather than complex rubrics for self-reflection and personal growth. Their holistic approaches to seeing the world were matched by these values, and although all of their actions weren’t aligned with them, general philosophical beliefs were. (Their philosophy before Socrates is said to be aligned with Eastern beliefs including the Tao and Buddhist impermanence, as will the following.)

In the same vein, youth programs—and all nonprofits—should move away from intricate dollar-for-dollar assessment and invest in deeper, more substantial change through the communities and populations they serve.

I have created a document that I think embodies this deeper way of being. Its not meant to summarize activities, emphasize outcomes, or promote accountability. Instead, its thinking about our whole lives as a way of living, including our youth programs, nonprofit organizations, schools, families, neighborhoods… all of a young person’s life. I call my document the Get Engaged Manifesto.

To be more successful, we need fewer strangleholds on our work, not more. Our public school teachers have been saying this over the last decade as they’ve labored under excruciating evaluations of their effects on student learning. Hopefully nonprofits won’t have to go through a decade of similar struggles in order to learn this lesson too.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Conditions for Youth-Driven Programs

Following is a simple assessment organizations can use to determine whether they really want to create youth-driven programming. I repurposed it from a tool the spectacular Michael Fielding of the University of Sussex originally created for schools, with his permission.

This tool can provide a straight-forward tool for practical conversations in nonprofits, community groups, and other places where adults are consider whether they really want youth to lead. There are four sections, including involvement, skills and attitudes, systems and spaces, organizational culture, and the future.

Conditions for Youth Driven Programs

Adapted by Adam Fletcher from M. Fielding with permission. 


  • Who is involved in Youth Driven Programming? 
  • Why are they involved? 
  • How are they involved? 
  • Which young people are allowed to be involved in driving programming? 
  • Who are they allowed to create programs for? 
  • What are they allowed to create programming focused on? 
  • What language, behaviour, and activities are encouraged and/or allowed? 
  • Who decides the answer to these questions? 
  • How are those decisions made? 
  • How, when, where, to whom and how often are these decisions communicated to young people and adults? 

Skills and Attitudes

  • Are the skills of Youth Driven Programming encouraged and supported through training or other appropriate means? 
  • Are these skills understood, developed and practiced within the context of other democratic values and dispositions? 
  • Are these skills themselves changed or informed by those values and dispositions? 
  • How do the young people and adults involved regard each other? 
  • To what degree are the principle of equal value and the dispositions of care felt reciprocally and demonstrated through the reality of daily encounter? 

Systems and Spaces

  • How often does dialogue and engagement between youth and adults currently happen in the organization and its programs? Who decides? 
  • How do the systems highlighting the value and necessity of Youth Driven Programming mesh with or relate to other activities, especially those involving adults? 
  • What action is taken for Youth Driven Programming? 
  • Who feels responsible for Youth Driven Programming? 
  • What happens if aspirations and good intentions are not realised? 
  • Where are the spaces (physical and metaphorical) in which Youth Driven Programming might take place? Who controls those spaces? 
  • What values shape their being and their use? 
Organizational Culture 
  • Do the cultural norms and values of the organization proclaim the importance of Youth Driven Programming within the context of communities as a shared responsibility and shared achievement? 
  • Do the practices, traditions and routine daily encounters demonstrate values supportive of Youth Driven Programming? 

The Future

  • Do we need new structures for Youth Driven Programming? 
  • Do we need new ways of relating to each other as youth and/or adults? 

CommonAction staff is available to train on Youth-Driven Programming and much more. To talk about the possibilities contact Adam Fletcher by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360) 489-9680.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Assessing Youth Involvement

One of the most important questions that is never asked in the youth voice movement is “Which youth are listened to?”, which includes “Which youth are involved?”

When you look at the young people in your program, organization, or community who are “involved”, what do they look like? What do they act like? What attitudes or opinions do they share? Inherent in this is the question of authenticity, as in, “How much does youth involvement represent what youth actually think?” All these are critical questions that have to be answered before, during, and after a youth involvement activity, program, or organization is underway.

To help people think more deliberately about these questions, I generally break down all Youth Voice with four simple questions for teachers, youth workers, and youth themselves. I encourage people to answer these questions with radical honesty and transparency.

Remember that Youth Voice is defined as any expression of young people, including their ideas, reflections, actions, opinions, knowledge, and wisdom.

Essential Questions for Youth Voice

1. Who is the Youth Voice activity, program or organization for?

Our Activity is for Traditionally Involved Youth…

  • Are involved in many youth leadership or youth involvement activities
  • Represent adult opinions through parroting or mimicry
  • Are typically motivated by adult acknowledgment
  • Settle for mediocre or negative forms of involvement, including decoration, tokenism, and manipulation
Our Activity is for Non-traditionally Involved Youth…
  • Do not become involved in formal school, organizational, or community involvement activities
  • Represent their own opinions, or do not share their voices at all
  • Are typically not motivated by adult acknowledgment
  • If they commit, when they commit, they are motivated by their own interest rather than extrinsic rewards
  • If they become involved, they are generally self-motivated to become involved
What is the Youth Voice activity, program, or organization for?

Our Activity is for Convenient Youth Voice…
  • The outcomes are predictable: youth generally say what adults want them to, how adults want them to say it, where adults expect them to say it, when they’re expected to say it, from who can be expected to say it.

Our Activity is for Inconvenient Youth Voice…

  • Young people are encouraged to represent their most radically honest opinions, ideas, actions, and wisdom
  • Adults are encouraged to simply listen to Youth Voice without needing to respond, react, or otherwise engage during the process of Youth Voice being revealed
  • Intact incentives have been identified and revealed to youth participants that benefit them directly
Notes: These statements are not judgment statements – they make no value statements about the worth or the purpose or the outcomes of any particular activity. While we can place some forms of Youth Voice activities squarely into particular forms, i.e. youth forums are Convenient Youth Voice, and student governments are Traditionally Involved Youth, not all activities are so easily prescribed, and there can be deviations from expectations. This reveals that each activity has to be judged by its own merits.
Youth and adult allies can use these questions to get at the essential realities behind Youth Voice, Youth Involvement, and Youth Engagement programs. Find more Youth Voice Assessments online in the Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolbox, and contact me, Adam Fletcher, for training or technical assistance on how to use them in your program or community!
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!