Supporting Young People in Your Organization

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When you make the commitment to involve young people in your organization, it’s important to realize the wide array of issues involved in supporting them to help them not only to make a contribution to your work, but ongoing contributions to community and society in general. Don’t let the challenge deter you! The benefits of including young people in your organization are many and detailed elsewhere in this issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly. Also, the practices detailed here are good practices to observe in general—with all employees.

Younger people, as yet relatively unscathed by the sometimes disappointing realities of even the best workplaces and lured by the mission orientation of our organizations, are likely to come in with high expectations of our workplaces and practices. This can be frustrating on both sides but, if the expectations are surfaced, talking about them can also promote in our organizations a deeper understanding of the meaning of our missions and the periodic disconnects between our stated values and our practices. For the young person such a discussion can promote an appreciation for complexity and the balancing of interests and tasks that are a part of running any organization.

Being in a minority position in a large group can be an overwhelming and intimidating experience. Helping young people feel welcome and comfortable in their new position is critical to their success. They will need information, supportive relationships, and a clear sense of their role in the organization. A good orientation process can provide a map to help them to successfully negotiate the complexity of
your organization.

It is important for an orientation to not only familiarize the young person with her specific roles and responsibilities, but to put those roles into the context of the organization as a whole. What roles do their position, department, or special projects play in the goals of the organization? How does the organization relate to organizations with similar goals, or to the nonprofit sector in general? Part of familiarizing young staff members with the “big picture” will also involve teaching them the acronyms and jargon of the field that you have come to take for granted (as in, “Call NCNB and get the CV of the ED, then find out if they’re 501(c)3.”)

An orientation can be as simple as a meeting to go over basic information about the mission and history of the organization, the span and limits of their particular role, and logistics about the work.

Finally, make sure that young people are welcomed personally and that they are encouraged to get to know what everyone else does. Personal relationships go a long way in ensuring that young people stay involved and active in the organization.

After the initial orientation, it’s in the best interests of the young person and the organization to provide continuing opportunities for training. The technical knowledge and communication skills young people develop as staff members of your organization will become important building blocks toward their future goals. In my experience as a youth staff member, the skills that were particularly useful later in my career were:
• creating and balancing a budget,
• creating a weekly work plan,
• prioritizing tasks according to deadlines, and
• helping to develop a strategic plan that articulated long-term goals and attached these to strategies.

Even more mundane and technical tasks can prove enormously useful over time. For instance, as a young assistant to the executive director of YouthBuild USA, I had to prioritize and categorize the incoming mail in a system I still use in my current office.

Ongoing skills training can also help young people develop their capacity to take responsible leadership and become more effective organizational members. Consider creating a training program to cover issues such as fundraising, public speaking, how to write a report, and how to read a budget. Training doesn’t always have to be formal; the “buddy system” is a great way to create and foster youth-adult partnerships that build the capacity of both parties. You can also ask the young people to design their own training program. What skills do they feel they need to develop? How best can they learn those skills—a workshop, apprenticeship, reading, other? Who can help them in this process?

All young people need someone to be thinking about them and what their particular experiences have been. If they seem bored in a meeting, don’t assume they’re lazy or uninterested—ask yourself if they fully know what the meeting is about, what the organizational context is, and what their role is in regard to the meeting. Part of this is the importance of young people knowing how much voice they have in a particular group or meeting; if young people are there to help plan a youth event, for instance, they should be emphatically told, “Yes, we want your ideas, so don’t be afraid to say what you think.”

Supporting a young person in an organization requires that you be able to imagine yourself in their shoes and envision yourself as a bridge between where the person is and where they want to be. If in doubt, err on the side of giving them too much information as opposed to keeping them in the dark. For example, if the young person is to do a training in another city, don’t take a “hands-off” attitude and assume they’ll just get there, can get excused from school, and so on.

For example, I did a recent training along with a youth trainer who was used to doing trainings for around 10 people. When 45 people showed up at the training, she was understandably intimidated and not sure what to do; what’s more, she was afraid to tell me her feelings for fear of disappointing me or losing future training opportunities. By attending to her situation and making it clear I’d been there before too, I was able to give her the special encouragement she needed, and together we planned a way to get through the training successfully.

On the other hand, peppering people with too much information at one time or talking at them without checking in on whether the information is useful or needed can also create barriers, in that it can give the impression that you think they know less than they do. Make sure interactions are two-sided.

In addition, a strong mentoring program can provide crucial ongoing support for young people in that it encourages critical thinking. Have youth and their mentors meet before and after meetings to debrief, and before projects are started and after they are completed. Having a mentor gives young people an opportunity to “check in” about their experiences and ask questions in a safe environment. Another important role mentors can play for young people is that of a sounding board. Sometimes when young people take the risk of proposing an idea only to have it shot down (because there’s not enough budget, it’s not compliant with the mission statement, or other reasons) they will need to debrief the experience and perhaps rethink about how to have their ideas heard or otherwise incorporated in the views of the organization.

As important as the individual personal support of adult mentors is for young staff members, it is equally important that the organization as a whole develop a scaffolding of supportive attitudes. To develop such a scaffolding it is crucial to confront and dismantle the stereotypes that all of us have about young people.

Just as young people may not be familiar with adult settings, many adults are not used to working in environments where young people participate as equals. Just as young people in our culture lack the respect and value accorded to adults, they also lack many of the resources (access to money, health care, flexibility with their time) adults may take for granted and expect from new employees. Additionally, young people are inundated with negative stereotypes from the media, often portraying them as lazy, drug abusing or criminal. These images can give young people negative views about themselves that hinder their progress and success just as surely as oppression from adults.

Stereotypes and myths about teens can get in the way of productive relationships, which is why communication and relationship-building skills are critical in making youth-adult partnerships work. Consider conducting an intergenerational training, in which youth and adult members can share their views of each other. Get adults to remember what it was like to be a young person. Have the young people talk about their lives. Give people a chance to laugh about the stereotypes we all hold about young people and adults. Activities like these help build understanding and result in a stronger, more effective team.

Preparing young people for future opportunities (both within and beyond your organization) requires a real investment in that person’s life. To really know their situation, you need to be aware of the full context of their lives; only then will you get a clear picture of the possible next steps of their professional development, as well as the probability of success in any particular path.
When helping a young person network with different organizations, don’t just give them a phone number: help them build links with other nonprofits and relevant individuals that will help them build skills and grow in the direction they want.

Once the young person has found a new position, it’s a good idea to call their new supervisor. If the new supervisor has never worked with young people, it’s important to get them to make the extra effort it takes for a young person to get acclimated to a new work environment.

As the young person prepares to transition to a new organization, make sure you help them to focus on the fact that they must attend both to their own development path and the need to get the work of the new organization done.

Youth on Board helps bridge the gap between adults and youth by providing practical information, training, publications, and support—the all-important “how-to”s that can be key to the success of young people as community leaders. Youth on Board offers a wide array of trainings, support, and publications for the public. For more information, go to www.youthonboard.org.

Karen Young, co-founder and principal of Youth on Board, was a renowned student organizer, working with several organizations and starting a number of grassroots projects. Her experience as the youngest member of the United States Commission on National and Community Service, combined with her experiences as a student and community activist, were her inspiration for starting Youth on Board. Jesse Graham is currently a student at Harvard Divinity School and is responsible for all the administrative tasks at Youth on Board. He has worked in volunteer teaching and tutoring programs and plans to go into child psychology.