Youth Involvement Stagnates

The national youth involvement movement has stagnated. For more than 20 years it has promoted almost the exact same approaches to addressing challenges are radically different today than ever before. Something has got to get different, and get that way rapidly.

I first became aware of the national effort to systematically involve youth throughout systems when I was 15. That year I was given a manual by the neighborhood Methodist church focused on youth involvement at church. I don’t remember too much about it, but I know that it highlighted different models of youth involvement and gave examples. That was 1990.

Ten years later I was hired into the national youth voice movement as a youth ambassador by the Points of Light Foundation, or POLF. At that point POLF had a high profile in that movement, sending folks around the country to promote the gospel of involving youth throughout society. That diminished in the years after, but the movement did not. Instead, throughout the 2000s more organizations than ever before sought to involve youth in decision-making, planning, evaluation, training, and advocacy. It was a powerful time. I logged a lot of these groups through my work in building The Freechild Project online database.

One of the feature technical assistance organizations, Youth On Board, contracted with me a few years ago to rewrite their primary manual about youth involvement, now called 15 Points to Successfully Involving Youth in Decision-Making. It was exciting to expose new action happening across the country focused on diversity in youth involvement, and show how deep the national movement had grown.

A lot of these efforts have been cut lately, and those that are left are generally slugging on the ropes. However, as much as I think this is a failure of politicians and movement builders to understand the necessity of youth involvement, I think it’s a failure of the movement itself to transform with the times.

Instead of adopting radical new approaches to engaging youth throughout society, most organizations promoting youth involvement stagnated through the last decade, and are now stuck precisely where they started.

Here are some examples of youth involvement that might be from 2001 or 2011, reflecting the inability of the movement to change with the times:

Those are all typical youth board member positions. Here are some exceptional ones:

Other places to look for exceptional examples of fully participating youth board members include city governments, and cities like Hampton, Virginia.

We need new approaches that re-envision the roles of young people throughout society. Youth involvement has stagnated.

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

Are Youth Allowed On Nonprofit Boards?

A board of directors is a legally-designated decision-making body in a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that is charged with establishing and maintaining an organization. They set the goals and objectives of the organization and maintain the authority to govern the organization throughout its existence.

Can youth participate in nonprofit boards of directors? It depends. In the United States the right for youth to create or participate in the boards of directors is made at the state level, so that what holds true in California may not be the same in Florida, and so forth.

In 2007 I co-authored a book with Youth On Board out of Boston called “15 Points To Successfully Involving Young People In Decision-Making.” In that book there is a table (pp 113-114) that provides a state-by-state analysis of the laws that effect youth involvement on boards. Eight of 50 US states disallow people under 18 from being on their boards of directors. In the other 42 states there is no specific age for directors specified in state law. Nine different states disallow young people from incorporating nonprofit organizations.

Want to know more about your state? Ask me specifically, or buy a copy of the book for yourself.

CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing or calling (360)489-9680.

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

The REAL New Media

The future of mass media in the United States is a bright and positive one. Now, I know that flies in the face of all the mainstream reports about the death of newspapers (long live the P-I) and the absence of popularity for television news. But folks, I’m here to say that there is a great hope mingling among us. This morning I was reading an article in last month’s Fast Company mag called “Will NPR Save the News? ” It easily extolled the virtues of NPR’s “digital smarts, nonprofit structure, and good old-fashioned shoe leather” and their hyper-successful podcast, blog, an open platform that allows listeners to mix their own podcasts, and an iPhone app. All this had led NPR to become the leading media outlet in the US, and they’re growing rapidly. Goody – because I’m a fan.

But there’s something else happening here that I don’t hear being talked about. Out there across America today there is a raging underground energy running frenetically throughout the media/activist community, and that energy is the power of youth voice. 100s of organizations across the country host youth-led media making programs today. I have found a few . These programs are actively engaging young people in creating newspapers, websites, podcasts, television programs and all sorts of new media. They are reporting on issues affecting their communities, their world and themselves. 
Embedded within these programs is a notion of connectivity: when young people become media makers they most certainly become more effective media consumers, and in turn tie in closer with their neighborhoods, cities and cultures. What does that mean for NPR? Well, a major differentiating factor between NPR and other forms of mainstream media is the profit motive: where others are driven by pumping dividends back to their boards, NPR is striving to make enough money to sustain and re-invest their programs. Mainstream media clearly lost that motivation, and that’s why they’re dieing. Youth-led media programs are going to prove essential to New Media because youth-led media represents both “new” and “media” – interactive, responsive, and personalized. To a lesser extent, because of their exposure to nonprofit organizations through these programs, young people will also be better mentally prepared to donate their time and money to supporting the delivery of quality media in the future.
Programmers and youth workers alike need to recognize the awesome burden on the shoulders of media today as it goes through its transition. While their model is dieing traditional media needs to realize that young people are more than the future of their business: they are the present, creating massively important, massively relevant and massively poignant media that will shape, encourage, and drive the future of democracy in the United States.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Lessons Learned: Tell Your Stories

This is the last of four posts reflecting on my experience of starting a nonprofit. In 2004, after running The Freechild Project for three years and SoundOut for two, I called together a group of friends here in Olympia to help me form a 501c3 nonprofit organization called CommonAction. CommonAction’s mission was “to create uncommon solutions to common problems by engaging young people and adults together for democracy.” I summoned the creative energy I had put into Freechild and SoundOut in the previous years, and called forth all the resources I could muster to build a machine. It worked. In just three years we recieved thousands of hits on our dozens of publications; mustered almost 200 workshops with more than 3,000 participants; and formed strategic partnerships with just over 150 organizations across the U.S. I call that successful. In closing the organization CommonAction’s board of directors made the bold determination that our model of community organizing was destined to be inoperable. Today I agree.

Lesson Four: Tell Your Stories There are little-known tales scattered throughout the streets of Activism City, stories of greed and fraud, deceit and falibility. Those tales, as well as the success stories, all have something to teach us. Some of the lessons I have learned about include the ways that politics shape nonprofits, whether stated or not; the ways The State and Corporations co-opt community organizers; the difference between activists and careerists; and ways to sustain outside the norm. I’m still working on the latter.

But all told, we all have stories. These are the paths that make our journeys, and the paths that give us legitimacy, learning, and authenticity, all of which are of particular importance for those who work with young people. And if you aren’t prone to running a nonprofit, more power to you! Still tell your story! We need all the energy we can tap from the people who care enough to do this work, and the power of actions comes out through good words – sometimes. Let’s get your stories out here so we can learn from them, and thanks for the hard work you do.

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Lessons Learned: Know When to Fold ‘Em

I was raised with the idioms, “work smarter not harder” and, “when the going gets tough the tough get going,” ringing through the air. The neighborhood where I spent my teen years was full of entreprenuers, some more legal than others, but all determined to get theirs in a difficult situation. All that is to say that the hustle comes easily to me. That’s why closing CommonAction was one of the most challenging things I have ever done. Faced with the option of continuing to dig an economic grave for myself and continuing to live a dream, I had to face the reality that sometimes the smarter thing to do is not to work harder, and sometimes getting going meant getting gone.
LESSON THREE: Know When to Fold ‘Em The legacy of a lifetime of serice has left my heart in a right place, full of the pulp of social justice and the vigor of righteous indignation. These are attitudes that put some people off and turn others on; they challenge the indifference pumped out in popular pedagogy by giving us a diverse narrative, one that isn’t reliant on consumerism or classism to determine relationships to power and authority. However, they also create a stubborn emphasis on fighting against aggressive failure, which hounds many of us who come from “challenging” backgrounds. What happened to CommonAction was neither aggressive nor swift; rather, it was a death of a thousand blows.

When the foundations who’d promised to materialize failed to in the early days of the organization I should have taken heed. When the contracts cleared and checks were sent but programs failed to sustain and adults lost interest, I should have noticed. When allies and colleagues who’d sounded determined failed to support I should have reacted. Instead I let the cards tilt and the machinations rust, allowing the house to tip and the machine to fall apart.

Nonprofit leaders have to know when to call the game, either for a failed program or a dieing organization. This is a grim reality that was ironically shadowed in my life, as I was watching the DVD collection for the HBO series Six Feet Under throughout the last year of CommonAction. I don’t regret folding, and I don’t regret starting the organization; however, these are lessons learned. This is the third of four postings.

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

Lessons Learned: Small Things

Starting a nonprofit organization appealed to my grandest visionary tendencies. To begin CommonAction I brought a sweeping notion that was inspired by what I’d started with The Freechild Project and SoundOut a few years earlier: “Let’s engage all young people everywhere in as much as meaningfully as we can!” Working from that place I engaged my board of directors in a wide-range of sweeping concepts, calling forward the grandest, most far-out ideas I could think of! And while that was entertaining, it was grossly inappropriate. Nonprofits must think about the details and practicalities that affect them everyday. This is the second of four posts reflecting on my experience of starting a formal nonprofit organization.

LESSON TWO: GET THE SMALL THINGS RIGHT It’s not just money and economic policies that are important to nonprofits. I have worked in more than one organization that sought to balance the books at the expense of good programs, as they focused solely on federal funding or corporate funding and developed programs that only appealed to those funders. Consequently the young people they serve are inherently compromised as the programs they participate in – often a major educating force in their lives – reflect the political or economical considerations of the funders that support them. For government agencies these efforts are primarily prevention and intervention programs that view “high risk” youth as incomplete or broken and in need of adultist activities that primarily perpetuate classist/racist/homophobic/imperialist agendas. For corporations these efforts reflect a consumerist agenda that largely situates low-income youth as servants to upper class citizens, demeaning and deflating the value of active citizenship and cultural norms.

In her classic Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, bell hooks wrote that, “Yesterday I was thinking about the whole idea of genius and creative people, and the notion that if you create some magical art, somehow that exempts you from having to pay attention to the small things.” In this way the visionaries behind nonprofits have to be cautious as well, as the tendency to dream big, think big and do big often comes at the expense of the details. Lets see the forest and the trees.

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

Lessons Learned: Money Matters

I find myself increasingly ready to openly reflect on my experience of starting a formal nonprofit organization and having to fold it after just three years. While CommonAction had a vibrant run, I still find myself a little bit stung; however, out of that sentiment comes some learning I want to share. This post is one of four with some of my lessons learned from starting a nonprofit.

LESSON ONE: MONEY MATTERS As Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay argue in their book Fundraising Management: Analysis, Planning and Practice, the single biggest cause of nonprofits failing is that organizations let their money matters fall apart. In the case of CommonAction the money never really came together. The best policies new nonprofit organizers can adopt are those that have clear economic goals, including funding sources and revenue replacement.

In 2007 a group called Incite! wrote a pivotal book about the nonprofit world called The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex. In it they make a sound a clarion call demanding that community organizers grow aware and averse to the demands of the negative funding cycles that are perpetuated by the American-oriented nonprofit-industrial complex. Anyone wanting to learn more about the truth behind the economic realities facing nonprofits should refer to that book for more.

The worse parts of funding a nonprofit organization are writing grants and reporting to funders. Both of these two items caused me undue anxiety, as I am a perfectionist when it comes to grant applications, and I feel morally obligated to be accountable for how I spend others’ money. In three years of constant funding-raising for CommonAction I wrote more than 50 requests for funding. I found myself constantly translating the vision and mission to funders who weren’t necessarily suited for funding radical youth engagement; however, their main foci, either in education, research, policy-making or technology, aligned with our mission indirectly. That didn’t seem to work: we only recieved 4 grants. As for reporting, the dilemma became finding time to compile the evaluations, aggregate the data, and identify measurements that effectively quantified the investments made in the organization. Where I wasn’t particularly successful in securing grant funding I made up for in fee-for-service contracts, and those contracts regularly required reports that called for this type of analysis. I rose to the task, but not easily; I challenge anyone considering starting a nonprofit to think about this component particularly.

This is my first post on this topic; I’ll put out three more. However, I might consider this the most important point. The reality that I face in this work, unfortunate or otherwise, is that I have little room for economic disparity in my own life. That leads me to work hard and diligently for my money, and demands that I take my labors seriously enough to give money the attention it deserves. Nonprofits require cash, and money matters

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