The Fund Releases Youth Civic Engagement Report

UPDATE: The Fund retired its strategy on Youth Civic Engagement in 2014. 

In July 2008, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund undertook a review of its youth civic engagement grantmaking with the help of two consultants, Brigette Rouson and Hilary Binder-Aviles, from Mosaica: The Center for Nonprofit Development and Pluralism. The report, and its recommendations for the Fund's future grantmaking, followed from a series of conversations with grant partners, colleagues in philanthropy, and other stakeholders in the field of youth civic engagement. As you will see in the report, there are a series of challenges facing the growth and development of youth civic engagement work.  These include, among others, the current economic crisis, a legacy of undercapitalization, and a lack of understanding of how youth organizing and other youth civic engagement activities add up to measurable, social change.

In the coming years, RBF staff will focus on supporting the capacity-building needs of intermediary organizations, and will partner with these intermediary organizations to meet key needs in the field, including the development of an infrastructure for alumni engagement, and of targeted leadership development opportunities in specific regions and communities, including the South, Native American communities, young women, and LGBT youth. We know that with our limited resources, we will need partners in the field and in philanthropy to continue growing the pool of resources to support young people's roles as change agents in their communities.

Below is the introduction to the report.  For the complete report, please view the PDF version. We welcome any feedback on and dialogue about this report.

For more insight from the grantmaking community, read the Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement's recently released white paper on the need to engage the 50 percent of youth who are not college bound.


Americans now know better than ever the power and potential of youth civic engagement. Last November, over 20 million young people aged 18 to 29 helped elect President Obama, the largest number of them to go to the polls since 1972. Clearly, when unleashed and channeled, the power of young people can be a significant political force. But, even in the midst of this excitement, there is real cause for concern. Non-college youth, who make up almost half of America's young adults, were largely absent from the 2008 elections. If these young people continue to live at the margins of our society and political processes, we risk weaker, less cohesive communities. (Figures on youth vote taken from CIRCLE - The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund's (RBF) youth civic engagement grantmaking program works to realize the potential political power of young people, especially those who are disconnected from jobs and educational opportunities. The youth civic engagement portfolio of the Democratic Practice-U.S. program supports organizing led by low-income youth and youth of color because their engagement and empowerment is key for a healthy American democracy. Youth organizing is used here to describe projects and programs that respect the experience and expertise of young people. In this work, youth identify their own concerns, mobilize their peers, brainstorm ideas, and execute campaigns.

Success for the youth civic engagement program will be the emergence of a robust infrastructure for sustained civic engagement of low-income youth and youth of color, growing them from organizers in their local communities to positions of power within the progressive movement and the nation at large. Developing a strong progressive youth leadership movement requires training and networking opportunities, strategic partnerships, collaborative organizing, convening, and safe spaces within which groups of young people can grow and develop. The RBF hopes to be a catalyst with its limited resources, supporting innovative, nimble organizations whose focus is on building the leadership of low-income youth and youth of color.

In July 2008, a strategic review of the RBF's youth civic engagement grantmaking was undertaken in partnership with Mosaica: the Center for Nonprofit Development and Pluralism. Mosaica's consultants reviewed program documents and conducted in-depth conversations with grantees, youth civic engagement funders, and other stakeholders to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the RBF's grantmaking in this area, identify the field's key needs, and make recommendations for future directions in the program's development. The Fund plans to continue its strategy of building capacity among intermediary organizations that help train, network, and empower low-income youth and youth of color involved in social change work. In the coming years, the Fund will partner with other foundations and its grant partners to implement some of the recommendations outlined later on in the report.