Over the course of the global pandemic, millions of youth and young adults have seen their plans for the future severely disrupted. Internships and summer jobs were cancelled, community youth programs hit pause, and virtual schooling was frequently a poor stand-in for in-person classes. Younger workers were more likely to be working in service jobs that were hard-hit by the economic downturn and impossible to conduct virtually, leading to high rates of youth unemployment. Meanwhile, many young people with parenting and caregiving responsibilities put their own development on hold to take care of family members during the pandemic.

At the same time, our national reckoning around racial justice spotlighted the disparate impact of the pandemic and economic downturn on youth of color, further reaffirming the importance of dismantling inequities in education and employment programs.

All told, this new context has redoubled the urgency that many philanthropies and grantmakers already felt around our national failure to effectively and equitably meet the education and employment needs of the 40+ million Americans aged 14 to 24.

On February 24th, Workforce Matters convened a group of grantmakers to discuss youth workforce development grantmaking strategies. Ranita Jain of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Isa Ellis of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Elizabeth Cheung of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation kicked off the conversation by sharing an overview of their youth workforce grantmaking strategies and reflecting on how their approaches have evolved in response to our new context. Following the panel discussion, participants split up into small groups to further discuss their own grantmaking and lessons learned.

Some of the key themes and take-aways from our conversation included:

  • The principles of positive youth development provide a helpful framework that many grantmakers use to guide the development of their youth workforce grantmaking strategy.
  • General operating support and flexible funding were critical to ensuring that youth providers were able to sustain operations and rapidly pivot to modify their programming during the early days of the pandemic. Many grantmakers are exploring ways to sustain flexible support for their grantees as they work to dismantle power imbalances and embrace trust-based philanthropy, such as updating their indirect cost rate policies.
  • Prior to the pandemic, more than 4 million “opportunity youth” were neither working nor in school (Measure of America). More research is needed to understand how many additional youth have become disconnected from education and employment during the pandemic – and how to rapidly, equitably, and effectively re-engage them.
  • On the policy and systems change front, many funders are concerned that young people have been largely overlooked in federal response and recovery investments. A number of funders expressed interest in exploring narrative change strategies to help shift the ways both policymakers and the public understand and respond to the needs of young people.
  • The voices, perspectives, and desires of young people are often ignored. Several grantmakers expressed concern that a four-year-college-for-all mentality continues to persist in K12 schools, complicating efforts to engage young people who are interested in pursuing alternative pathways such as careers in the skilled trades or apprenticeship programs. They encouraged peers to support efforts that explore how young people see themselves and think about their future careers and lives.
  • There is a continued need to build the capacity of the field to equitably and effectively meet the needs of young people. Investments in intermediary organizations can help to accelerate progress by providing the field with networking opportunities, resources, and guidance.
  • Many employers don’t have the capacity or knowledge to effectively engage and support younger workers. Investments focused on deepening and improving employer engagement practices with the goal of fostering equitable and inclusive employment opportunities for young adults of color are particularly timely. With businesses currently experiencing labor shortages, funders are seeing increased business interest in and appetite for changing their practices to attract and retain young workers. Additionally, increased attention and commitment towards racial equity provides another opportunity for deeper engagement.
  • Workforce grantmakers should take mental health concerns into account when developing their investment strategies. In December 2021, the US Surgeon General issued an Advisory on Youth Mental Health Crisis Further Exposed by COVID-19 Pandemic, highlighting the degree to which mental health issues are disrupting the lives of young people. Several grantmakers also noted concerns about frontline youth service providers, noting that many organizations are reporting high rates of burn-out among their staff. These funders encouraged their peer grantmakers to ask grantees what steps they are taking to ensure the wellbeing of their staffs and to help nonprofit partners connect to guidance and resources when needed.
  • Funders are hungry for more opportunities to jointly strategize around youth education and employment grantmaking. Participating grantmakers also emphasized the importance of forging partnerships across foundations to foster a more comprehensive continuum of youth services. For example, grantmakers from K12 education focused foundations can partner with grantmakers investing in apprenticeship and job training programs to make aligned investments that support seamless career pathways.

If you’re a grantmaker who’s interested in joining the conversation, we encourage you to join us for our Fall Convening this November, where we hope to provide another opportunity for youth workforce grantmakers to come together, compare lessons learned, and explore opportunities for collective action. If you have specific questions about youth workforce grantmaking, Workforce Matters can also help facilitate introductions to peer grantmakers with experience or expertise related to your questions - we'd love to hear from you.