The COVID-19 pandemic posed an unprecedented set of challenges the world over—millions of young people forced into remote learning seemingly overnight; a parallel mental health epidemic in many countries; and a disruption in work placing already vulnerable populations at even greater risk. The speed of these changes overwhelmed the ability of the public sector and most large-scale institutions to respond immediately, nimbly, and with community-driven solutions.
So where do you turn?
You go to the young innovators and doers who know how to lead effective, responsive, grassroots change. Fortunately for IYF, we had ready access to a global network of over 2,000 young social entrepreneurs, many of whom were already taking action to address urgent pandemic-related needs.
To champion their efforts, in May 2020 we launched the Global Youth Resiliency Fund (GYRF) with generous support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and Burberry. The goal was simple: put resources in the hands of youth-led ventures, both social enterprises and nonprofits, that are delivering vital services to address COVID and create a better post-COVID world. Two years later, the 28 ventures that received funding offer tangible proof of the benefits of youth partnerships.
Even before I came to IYF in 2017, I was keenly aware of the organization's work to invest in young changemakers globally, equipping them with leadership training to achieve even greater impact. With the onset of the pandemic, we reached out to these amazing leaders—now more experienced—and they told us they needed flexible funding, targeted skill-building, access to new networks, and relief from the burdensome eligibility and reporting requirements too common in global development initiatives.
We listened closely, and the GYRF was our response. In addition to awarding US$ 10,000 grants, we hosted a learning series featuring external experts, peer-to-peer facilitated dialogues, and IYF-led training workshops and online resources on brand building, communication and storytelling, fundraising, and other topics.
In answer to the question ‘Why partner with youth?’ I often respond, “because this is what locally-driven, inclusive development looks like.” It’s not top-down and bureaucratic; it’s bottom up and carried out in the spirit of true partnership. Moreover, if you need things done quickly, harnessing the full benefit of today’s digital technologies, young innovators have a clear edge.
“This is what locally driven, inclusive development looks like… We built the GYRF program on trust and the shared value of engaging with youth as partners.”
We built the GYRF program on trust and the shared value of engaging with youth as partners, and today, I’m pleased to report that most grant recipients exceeded their initial goals, with many finding ways to sustain grant-funded activities into the future. I encourage you to keep reading for a healthy dose of inspiration. You’ll learn about young leaders who mobilized quickly and achieved impressive impact—and scale. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and Burberry, who pooled their funds to make these grants possible.
My deepest gratitude extends to each of the GYRF grantees who stepped up—and leaned in—at a time of crisis. In the face of the pandemic and growing climate-related emergencies, we don’t have a choice but to act smarter and deliver expedient, effective solutions when and where needed. Together, the GYRF grantees tell a powerful story of what’s possible through investing in locally rooted, youth-led social change.
At IYF, we believe that investing in youth-led development isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Today’s young innovators possess uncommon drive, deep-rooted compassion, and an overwhelming sense of possibility. Not surprisingly, we received over 200 strong applications for the Global Youth Resiliency Fund, with 28 young changemakers selected to participate.
Below, recipients share how the Fund contributed to the work and growth of their organizations. They speak about the people and communities impacted by the funding, the opportunities for personal leadership growth, the connections they forged with other awardees and stakeholders, and much more.
As their experiences show, even relatively small grants can have a powerful impact. The success of these efforts reflects the bottom-up, sustained change so critical to achieving the larger aims of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Take, for example, Cristian Vélez Ramirez and his team at Amazon Forever, who stepped up to ensure students living in the Amazon basin in Peru could access fun, engaging digital content with a conservation message. More than 8,340 students were reached, with 350 preschool and primary school teachers trained to engage students in nature-based games that reinforce soft skills from cooperation to problem solving. Amazon Forever is now sharing its educational tools with Peru’s Ministry of the Environment and its methodology with local partners.
During the height of the pandemic, grantees like Cristian pivoted quickly to identify gaps and meet critical needs for mental health care, online learning, sexuality education, inclusion of those with disabilities, and civic engagement. Many prioritized challenges facing vulnerable populations, including Indigenous youth in Mexico, refugees living in informal communities in Kenya, and immigrant women in Brazil.
“The GYRF award allowed us to innovate in our Aprendices Visuales (Visual Schools) program. With the funding provided, we reached 20 schools in 6 months, quadrupling our annual social impact.”—Miriam Reyes Oliva, Spain
Awardees maximized the use of digital technologies to overcome limitations imposed by the pandemic—with many considerably scaling their impact. One example is Binayak Achara, founder of ThinkZone in India, which delivers low-tech solutions aimed at providing children in underserved communities with quality education. With GYRF support, ThinkZone dramatically scaled its home-based learning program in partnership with the state government of Odisha.
“We on-boarded and provided quality learning opportunities to 14,369 students… and trained 797 school teachers on the different aspects of our home-based learning program. They used the ThinkZone mobile application to support parents to conduct learning activities at home.”—Binayak Acharya, India
Other GYRF awardees empowered young people with the knowledge and skills to pursue career opportunities—now and in the future—particularly in the fast-growing STEM sector. Consider Oscar Contreras Villarroel, Founder of Fundación Ciencia Joven (FCJ) in Chile. Oscar and his team created an online platform where students and teachers can access the organization's proven science education methodology.
“This award allowed us to strengthen, virtualize, and innovate the programs of Fundación Ciencia Joven in an agile way, allowing us to reach more countries. Programs that were previously done in person, are today implemented from an innovative digital platform: SoWork… The virtualization of our programs made our mission to promote the next generation of young leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Latin America, still possible.”—Oscar Contreras-Villarroel, Chile
Promoting gender equity was another potent theme among funded projects, with grantees teaching girls how to code in Australia, helping young women gain on-the-job experience in Jordan, and training women in Kenya with skills in the renewable energy sector.
“The direct beneficiaries of the project include 150 smallholder farmers, 80 percent of whom are women, who accessed Solar Freeze cold storage solutions and reduced post-harvest loss by 95 percent.”—Dysmus Kisilu, Kenya
Awardees also increased their capacity to tell their stories and generate greater visibility for their work—highlighting the existence of practical, low-cost solutions to urgent social and environmental challenges. Some formed partnerships and identified levers of change for impacting larger systems. Others have gone on to leverage funding to sustain their projects into the future. In the face of very real obstacles imposed by the pandemic, the GYRF awardees demonstrated persistence, measurable results, and unquantifiable goodwill.
In Kenya: With a grant from the Global Youth Resiliency Fund, Maria Omare’s team at The Action Foundation trained 28 teachers to deliver digital storytelling instruction to over 650 students—30 percent with disabilities. Teachers were trained in scriptwriting, storyboarding, and the creation of audio-visual assets.
Learn more about all 28 Global Youth Resiliency Fund awardees and the amazing work their organizations are doing in their own communities, and beyond.
In Madagascar, Maia Ramarosandratana founded Projet Jeune Leader (PJL) in 2013 to provide comprehensive sexuality education in rural, underserved middle schools with the goal of preventing unplanned pregnancy, risky sexual behaviors, and school-dropouts. Here, she describes the impact of GYRF funding on rural students and schools and how PJL leveraged its success to form new partnerships with the national Ministry of Education to scale the program.
“The GYRF award helped Projet Jeune Leader evolve into a new phase of growth and impact and guided my own evolution in how I lead the organization. The award funded our program in five new schools in highly rural areas, where schools are severely under-resourced and educational outcomes are substantially lower than in urban areas. These vulnerabilities were only exacerbated by the pandemic. While to date I have led PJL as an adolescent health program, our work in these schools demonstrated the power of PJL’s Educators as change agents to strengthen the education system.”
These insights prompted me to rethink how I lead and position the organization to focus not only on the critical health knowledge we bring to young adolescents, but also on our multifaceted impact on educational attainment. I have developed a new interest in education policy and advocacy, and over the past few months, I formed a small advocacy and external communications team. With renewed motivation and vision, we have successfully built new partnerships at the highest levels with the national Ministry of Education to replicate and scale our program in rural Madagascar. In this context, IYF’s Brand Building and Storytelling workshop strongly resonated, helping me reframe the story of how we are advancing comprehensive sexuality education to the last mile to transform to schools and communities. These insights directly translated into our communications materials, including a new website, and program and advocacy strategies."
“With funding from GYRF, we brought our program to 2,198 students at five new public middle schools. Our Educators across these schools collectively taught 890 hours of comprehensive sexuality education classes and provided 346 confidential counseling sessionss to adolescents.”—Maia Ramarosandratana
Learn more about Maia and Project Jeune Leader.
Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed describes the Social Innovation Lab’s “Weaving Pathways” project in Pakistan and Brazil as “empowering women to build a better, more equitable interim and post-pandemic world for themselves, their families, communities, and economies.” Through the project, women artisans gained valuable skills and access to new markets with the ultimate goal of strengthening livelihoods.
“With the support of GYRF, Social Innovation Lab was able to expand the activities of our Weaving Pathways project. The project’s goal was to foster a digital co-creation experience between artisans from Hunza, Pakistan and Bolivian migrant seamstresses from a youth cooperative in São Paulo, Brazil. We provided training opportunities for 25 women artisans and seamstresses from Brazil and Pakistan. The women developed skills through trainings in areas such as digital tools/platforms, content creation, fabric manipulation, and improving stitching quality.
One participant, Shahida Sharis, runs an artisanal shop in Hunza where she makes hand-embroidered bags, wallets, caps and other products for the tourist trade. Shahida faced various challenges related to marketing her products, internet accessibility, and sourcing raw materials.
After training sessions on digital literacy and marketing, Shahida developed a plan to sell her products on digital platforms and created a page on Instagram. She experimented with creative content marketing tactics such as photographing her products for her online pages. She also got a chance to build connections with local designers. After the successful completion of training, our team helped Shahida with writing grants to expand her stitching unit and scale her business. In addition to learning new skills, participants shared Indigenous knowledge from their respective cultures. Artisans in Hunza began using Bolivian-inspired embroidery designs, and vice versa.
In September 2021, the artisans and seamstresses displayed their co-created products at The Saltaire Makers’ Fair held in Bradford, UK. With GYRF support, we were able to handle the logistics and related shipping expenses. The exhibition attracted 2,300 visitors with 30 individuals signing up to order products created by our artisans and seamstresses.
With GYRF support, we assisted these amazingly talented women in bringing innovation to their products and bringing their products to a larger consumer audience.”
Learn more about Maryam and Social Innovation Lab.
In Uganda, Golden Boots Uganda founder Muhammed “Mo” Kisirisa launched the “Our Sport 4 Mental Wellbeing and COVID-19 Recovery Project” to meet the needs of marginalized young people in Kampala during the pandemic. Here he shares what he achieved with the GYRF award.
“With support from GYRF, Golden Boots Uganda was able to reach 500 young people—mainly girls, refugees, and young people with disabilities—in Kampala and other low-income areas of Uganda through the Sports for Mental Wellbeing project. Using sport as a tool to mobilize young people, we provided information about mental health and safe spaces so young people could share ideas and experiences with each other and trained mental health experts.
We also used the GYRF as leverage to win a new grant of 25,000 Euro (27,800 USD) from the Sport for Mental Health and Social Cohesion (SMHSC) program, co-funded by the French Development Agency (AFD), German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ}, and La Guilde. With this funding, in February 2022, Golden Boots Uganda launched the Youth Mental Fitness Project —a six-month project that aims to use the power of sport and physical activities to improve mental, physical, and social well-being among adolescent girls, youth with disabilities, and refugees in Kampala. Moreover, we were nominated and selected to speak at Global Sports Week in Paris where we’ll share our mental health projects and stories with more than 5,000 investors and potential funders to help us further grow and scale our programs.”
Learn more about Mo and Golden Boots Uganda.
Although “locally-led” is the phrase of the day in development spheres, the idea of tilting the balance of power away from U.S.-based funding organizations and towards the individuals, communities, and local organizations who receive funding is not new. In fact, many young leaders around the world have been calling for this change for years.
In the words of Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed, GYRF awardee and founder of the Social Innovation Lab, “The shift in the balance of power [between funding organizations and community organizations] is both utterly necessary and long overdue. And it is also not enough. An actual systems shift will see the communities that usually receive funds…be in a position of influence that enables them to be the decision-makers when it comes to allocating the said funds.”
Of course, she’s right.
Facilitating the growth of local, youth-led organizations is critical. Historically, it’s been part of how IYF conducts its global work, and it was a driving impetus behind the formation of the Global Youth Resiliency Fund. To achieve true local, youth-led leadership, the ceding of power is paramount. Ceding power means trusting local organizations—like those who received GYRF funds—to be the experts they are in the areas that affect their communities, countries, and regions the most. It means promoting the funding of youth issues and advocating for the importance of supporting youth-led ventures. In the case of the Global Youth Resiliency Fund, it meant securing a larger pool of funding, redistributing it in accessible chunks, and then getting out of the way.
Of course, solving the world’s toughest challenges takes a multi-stakeholder approach. This includes partners from the public and private sectors as well as civil society. It involves engaging organizations with long track records willing to share their successes and failures. It requires sparking conversations between funders and local organizations. And it assumes a willingness on the part of funding organizations to listen, learn, and reimagine the status quo to achieve greater impact.
We hope you’ll join us—in conversation and action—in supporting and investing in youth-led ventures.
Together, let’s transform development!
Dive Deeper: Dig into lessons learned through this companion article, What 28 Young Visionary Leaders From Around the World Taught Us About How to Partner Well, authored by the GYRF program lead, and IYF’s Technical Adviser for Youth Agency and Engagement, Sarah Jonson.