Vernon has developed a methodology that supports young people to take charge of grantmaking in their communities, allowing them to lead real, concrete change and enabling them to fully realize their changemaking potential.
The New Idea
Vernon founded Youth Bank International (YBI) to transform relationships within and between communities by putting young people in charge of grantmaking organisations. Youth Banks (YB) are youth-led (between the ages of 14-25) grantmaking groups or programmes within a host organization, that channel money into projects that will improve the quality of life of communities in 25 countries around the world. However, Youth Banks are not just about youth redistributing resources, they are programmes that demonstrate that young people can create positive social change when given the responsibility and enabling environment to do so. As opposed to conventional philanthropy or youth development initiatives where young people are the recipients or ‘beneficiaries’, in a YB the grantmaking process is conducted entirely by young people - from fundraising, to grant distribution, to follow-up. Young people recruit members, fundraise locally for money and in kind donations, review applications, and support groups in implementing their community programmes. By having the entire grantmaking process run by and for young people, the YBI model challenges traditional philanthropic and funding processes and institutions, moving away from tokenistic youth involvement to meaningful and long-term community engagement.
Vernon is shaping the participatory grant system through YB groups across the world working primarily in conflict or post-conflict societies. His model gives young people the ultimate responsibility for fundraising, leading and deciding what projects to fund within their communities. YBI builds upon the resources, knowledge and insight of existing YBs, to further develop and spread the YB model to other countries. YBI also builds strategic alliances with other organisations to engage in the development of support programmes that provide the learning to influence practice and policy development. The impact of YBI is understood not only by the number of initiatives funded (and money raised) but also by the shifting perceptions of young people and their communities through demonstrations of youth leadership.
Since founding YB Northern Ireland in the late 90’s, Vernon has scaled the Youth Bank model to over 25 countries. Last year, thousands of young people acted as grantmakers and led 164 YouthBanks, distributing funds to over 1,200 projects. In 2017, YBI worked with 26 host organisations across four continents engaging young people from countries like Armenia, Egypt, Mozambique, Turkey and the US. Looking forward, Vernon intends to strategically target grantmaking institutions to mainstream participatory youth grantmaking models globally.
Today the world is home to 1.8 billion people aged between 15 - 24 years, the largest youth population in history (The Commonwealth, 2017). Although there has been an increase in the recognition of the value of young people at the national and international strategic levels of policy making, (UN ECOSOC, 2018) it has not been matched by a corresponding increase in the commitment of resources or transfer of power or authority to this group. Despite youth being the largest proportion of the population, they receive less investment and youth specific programming and resources. In addition, there is little local or national government funding dedicated to young people and it is often driven by national agendas rather than responding to the needs of this group (e.g. youth funding dedicated to prevention of drug and alcohol abuse), meaning there is a disjoint between needs of communities and allocation of resources. Moreover, philanthropy and grant making within international development contexts continues to be run by a small elite group of people who lack diversity. This is especially important in international development contexts where resources are redistributed from the Global North to the Global South and can exacerbate entrenched inequalities along global lines.
Young people are not trusted to run programmes, be in charge, and exercise sound decision-making. Youth are served with a top-down approach and either thought of as “the problem” or “the future.” Youth involvement in grantmaking or in youth development is often tokenistic (one youth member rather than a larger ratio). Youth are not given opportunities to make real decisions, have their voices heard consistently, and are not often meaningful contributors to their communities. Finally, there are few opportunities for youth to skill up through community problem solving real-world, hands-on, project and team based.
Worldwide, young people have little or no formal structures to be involved in decision making in their local communities. Where there are structures available for young people to be involved, their role is typically reduced to a tokenistic or peripheral role.
Vernon’s strategy is to create a methodology that allows young people to contribute to and shape the field of philanthropy. YouthBank International serves as the umbrella organisation for Vernon to support locally run community Youth Banks. Vernon has three elements to his strategy: developing a simple and replicable methodology, spreading the methodology through a train-the-trainer model, and supporting these processes through networks at the local, national and international level.
Developing a simple and replicable methodology for YouthBank International involved several components. The goal of the methodology was to demonstrate how with the right kind of support young people can be accountable, responsible, and have a stake in the outcomes of their decisions and actions in their communities. To create this type of methodology Vernon developed several structures and rules. First, young people are required to raise at least 20% of the funds themselves to establish a YB group and are completely responsible for the overseeing of all fundraising. This involvement develops an accountability and ownership as well a means for young people’s actions to have actual consequences in their communities. Carefully selected and trained group facilitators support the young people through the required fundraising steps. Ultimately it is up to them to reach out and approach local businesses, municipalities, and run community fundraising events. Next, YB groups are required to organize two publicly facing events to further the connection with their communities. The first is the launch event and the second is a follow-up where all those who received awards and grants or who donated come together to celebrate and reflect. Members of groups are chosen and later recruited by the other young people to be representative of their community. YB groups and their facilitators have an objective that no individual race, class, ethnic identity or gender is excluded, or more present than another. Once the group is formed, facilitators lead a session on who is underrepresented in the room, encouraging YB members to reflect on their own position in their community.
To have a simple and replicable methodology the grants needed to be bite-sized and manageable. As a result, the grants young people give away range from 20 to 250 USD but rarely more. Vernon also wanted the process and grant making to be flexible enough to be contextualised. As such, the young people determine the criteria and theme of the funding themselves. The YB model has a weighted criteria system in that young people not only determine the criteria but also decide which are the most important to them and their community. Furthermore, Vernon wanted the entire YB process to be one of self-reflection and, as such, the facilitators’ purpose and technique happens through Socratic dialogue. Vernon set up several decision-making models that ensured that young people were really the ones making decisions and that they were protected. For example, when young people select and interview the grantees, only half of the YB group conduct the interviews while the other half will serve as the assessors of the projects. This protects young people from losing face should an application not be successful. The YB members thus keep each other accountable in addition to support from the facilitator. Lastly, to further legitimise the methodology, Vernon worked with the Ordinary National Certificate in Ireland (similar to a GED in the US) so that young people become recognised and accredited for this work. He demonstrated that the process has value with young people having developed skills in community mapping, research, project management, publicity and promotion.
The second element of Vernon’s strategy was to support and grow the methodology by training trainers across countries. The key to YB’s success is that it is free, simple, and local host organisations cover the cost of trainings. The values and methodology stay the same but the grantmaking itself is contextualised, which means that young people can adapt it for their circumstances. For example, in some locations young people might focus on funding environmental projects while in others it may be focused on animal welfare or health. A second key component is the careful selection of the host and partnering organisation. Vernon set a process to ensure they have complete organisational approval from the board to the staff to ensure that they are comfortable championing the realities of entirely youth-led programming. Once this process is complete, YB International establishes either a licensing agreement or a Memorandum of Understanding, following which the YBI team will train the group leaders and facilitators. While Vernon continues to do some of these trainings, many of the trainers are former YB members themselves. Trainings typically last four days and are fully immersive. Vernon is looking to further develop a quality assurance training going forward to ensure that groups continue getting support and for YBI to gather data and keep the standard high.
The third element of Vernon’s strategy was to create a decentralised support model by building local, national, and international networks to support sustainable growth of the organisations and promote larger exchange across borders. In order to continue supporting and growing local groups, Vernon had local hubs set up for the groups to connect, share best practices, and convene their young people for yearly conferences. As YB expanded, Vernon built these up to the national level by encouraging more group trainings across host organisations and setting up more YB links within countries. Vernon is now looking to expand these networks on an international level, connecting entire regions. For example, he is beginning to work with all YB in central and eastern Europe to build a larger hub. In Georgia there are 15 YB networks alone. Vernon aims to capitalise on this moment by building more structures within YBI to act as a convener. The national and international levels of this network build the capacity and create peer to peer accountability, which are managed according to the region. Vernon aims to support these exchanges by developing a platform for real time data. This technology platform would help to connect groups, gather information at a national level, and serve as a fundraising tool. He aims to cross reference this data (capturing not only the number of young people and grants but also the themes and projects young people are focusing on) with the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are used as a benchmark to generate more international credibility in addition to supporting a fundraising strategy.
Vernon aims to continue growing and scaling the YB model while building more robust quality control mechanisms. He has open sourced his toolkit and has made it free and accessible for all those who are trained in the methodology. YBI scales through host organisations and foundations that work at local and national levels. This is again dependent on the context – for example, in Romania, the YB model is scaled through schools while in Ireland it has scaled primarily through a national youth organisation. Vernon has scaled the YB model to over 25 countries partnering with 26 host organisations across four continents (such as the Europe Foundation in Georgia, The British Youth Council in the UK, and Senior Ashoka Fellow Ibrahim Betil’s Toplum Gönüllüleri Vakfı in Turkey). In 2017 thousands of young people acted as grantmakers and led 164 YouthBanks in distributing funds to over 1,200 projects. YB International has raised and redistributed over 2.5 million euros across its different groups.
Vernon grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland. On his first day of school he was reprimanded for playing with other children and physically punished. Abuse in school was commonplace and Vernon was never able to accept these parameters and forever viewed the school environment as oppressive. At 16, disengaged with school and looking to earn a bit of extra cash, Vernon set up a window cleaning and painting business. After completing his high school, Vernon went on to receive training and become a youth worker. He was based in Belfast at the height of The Troubles. This time was extremely difficult and gave him the lived experience of being a part of a community suffering from community violence and trauma. Walking home after a community meeting one night, Vernon was brutally beaten.
At 23 Vernon was burnt out, ready for change, and moved to England to work with an arts youth group. He continued working with youth groups in Bolton for ten years and then returned to Northern Ireland to work with the Northern Ireland Community Foundation on youth led development programming. During this time, peace and conflict resolution money was pouring into Northern Ireland. Vernon grew increasingly frustrated as so many of these funds were not going to youth programming. He then had an open question: “If young people were directly in charge of funds, where would they want the money to go?”
Vernon played around with the idea and, with the blessing of the NI Community Foundation, launched the first iteration of YouthBank Northern Ireland. The model gained traction and was adopted across Ireland. Its success drew attraction from other post-conflict areas. Vernon began openly sharing their learnings and best practices to help set up YouthBank across the Caucasus thereby proving the power of the model outside of its original context. Realising the potential of the YouthBank model, Vernon knew it would be unsustainable to let it continue growing without an umbrella organisation to provide adequate training and support to these groups. To address these needs, Vernon founded YouthBank International to support the scaling and growth in a sustainable way.