Youth-led environmental groups are “scraping for morsels” to find funding

Despite the prevalence and importance of youth-led environmental work, these leaders face massive barriers to access funding and sustain their efforts.

Why It Matters

As climate disasters in Canada and the world are getting more frequent and severe, youth-led environmental groups are leading some of the most innovative projects in the sector. But youth need adequate financial support to maintain their work, and livelihoods.

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Youth are not just the face of the environmental movement. 

We see them leading climate justice protests and rallies all year long, launching lawsuits against the government, putting pressure on banks and policy officials to divest from fossil fuels. But more than that, youth are also the hands and feet of the movement, pushing for change, and working on the ground to do the real, tough environmental and climate justice work. They are leading conservation initiatives like shoreline cleanups and habitat restoration, mitigating wildfire risks, and shaping clean energy solutions for the country.  

In the last few years as climate disasters across Canada worsen, the need for climate justice and environmental work is more important than ever. And youth-led organizations that are already leading environmental work need greater financial support and mentorship in order to sustain their efforts to protect the environment and adapt to climate change. 

And yet youth-led environmental groups are seriously underfunded. 

In our recent story profiling youth-led environmental groups from across Canada, nearly all of them cited that funding was a major issue for their organization. According to the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship (FES), less than 40 percent of youth-led environmental groups have paid staff. Though there is little research and academic writing on the lack of funding for youth-led environmental organizations, many youth leaders within the sector talk about the significant barriers in place that restrict them from their work. 

We talked to youth environmental leaders as well as funders to find out what the major barriers are for youth-led groups, and what kind of support youth need to thrive as they work towards environmental resiliency. 


Youth-led groups are getting “crumbs of a greater, larger pot” of funds 

For many youth who dive into environmental work, navigating the social impact sector is, well, like navigating a maze. Without established networks, knowledge on how to apply for grants or how to run an organization, youth leaders are often left in the dark. 

Also, since many youth-led groups are grassroots organizations with no charitable status initially, it cuts them off from applying to many grants altogether. The few funding opportunities available are often small grants which don’t cover core operational costs, but are project-based grants that don’t sustain organizations long term, according to Kat Cadungog, executive director of FES.

Cadungog explains that youth-led groups are often given ‘micro grants’ (which she considers as grants less than $5,000) to do a specific project, which are like “crumbs of a greater, larger pot.” 

“A lot of funders, they don’t like to fund the salary part of things, they don’t like to fund the administrative part of things because that’s not the ‘sexy’ version of what they would like to fund; they want to fund the big project,” says Cadungog. “But in reality, if you don’t pay the admin, the salary, and the back-end, who’s actually going to be doing the work and compensated for it?”

Maxime Lakat, executive director of Re_Generation, a youth-led movement seeking to build a regenerative, sustainable, and just economy, explains that after Re_Generation (previously known as Canadian Business Youth Council for Sustainable Development) shifted from being a university group into a non-profit organization, finding financial support was a huge struggle. 

“Because we have less than one year of [financial] existence [as an organization], banks will not give us a loan and they won’t give us a credit margin because we’re too young [financially]. And that’s the large majority of banks,” says Lakat. 

While Re_Generation has existed for three years, they officially became a non-profit last September, and for the first four months, were essentially volunteer run. The government wage subsidies they applied for finally came through in January, which is when the organization started to pay staff. Re_Generation now has five paid staff members and 15 people on the volunteer steering committee. 

“My co-founder and I both needed to be fine with the fact that there was a lot of uncertainty and that we didn’t know how much we could pay ourselves, and by when we would be able to pay ourselves — we had to take that risk,” says Lakat. 

While Lakat says he’s in a financial position where he doesn’t have to worry too much about taking that risk, his co-founder had to find another job on the side to support himself, and was under a lot of financial stress for a few months.

“It’s stressful when you know some of your team members, who you really rely on, are facing that stress and need to go see somewhere else for part of their work, because that means they’re going to be a little bit less focused on what you’re trying to build,” says Lakat. 


Some organizations are paving a way for youth leaders who are starting out 

While there is little funding available for youth, a few youth-led organizations in the environmental landscape are providing holistic support for youth environmental movements. Whether through mentorship and coaching or actually streamlining the grants to these groups. 

Organizations like FES and Youth Climate Lab (YCL), are described as bridges between a grassroots youth movement and the formal world of philanthropy, helping out and supporting youth groups to get connected to established networks and find resources. 

FES, for instance, provides memorandum of understanding (MOU) contracts to youth-led environmental groups that don’t have charitable status, which allows these groups to have FES’s charity status by extension, in turn allowing them to apply for grants. 

Re_Generation, which has an MOU contract with FES, has been able to secure thousands of dollars because of the charity status they now have through the MOU, according to Lakat. 

Devika Shah, executive director at Environment Funders Canada says organizations like FES play a huge role within the environmental movement in Canada. “[FES is], in many ways, basically a shared platform for so many youth-led organizations across the country that don’t have charitable status, and don’t have the time and the resources to be dealing with funders and funding applications. So to have it streamlined and to have FES play that administrative, project management-type role is really, really critical,” says Shah. 

Similarly, YCL is another organization that creates a supportive ecosystem for youth leaders. Celeste Alcena, YCL’s community manager, says that first and foremost, YCL is an incubator for innovative, youth-led environmental projects, offering support and expertise to youth leaders on how to build and grow as a “green entrepreneur.” 

YCL started up as an organization in 2017, but has grown in presence significantly in the last few years. The organization secured over $450,000 USD to support youth-led climate action, and worked with over 30 partners from around the world. 

“We’re in a position where we do have a bit of credibility, we can receive funding, and we try to mobilize funding towards [environmental] work so that it’s not just us who’s doing it, but we can share that wealth and allow for others to be in that space, hold that space, and create that space with us in this co-creation journey,” says Alcena. 

Now, YCL is working on finding and building relationships with funders that have more capital available, to tap into those funding streams for youth leaders who need quick access to funds. 

“I think what we’re seeing with youth-led organizations is that it’s much more than the funding support that’s required,” says Shah. “The deeper you go into that space, the more you realize that you need specialized skills and abilities to effectively support youth-led movements, and funders aren’t necessarily the best place to provide those supports; but they can find organizations that are well placed to provide the support and resource them.”


Creating a more supportive funding ecosystem for youth-led organizations

Resources that organizations like FES and YCL provide for youth-led environmental leaders and groups are vital, but not as widespread as they need to be to support the range of environmental work happening around the country. 

Lakat says there needs to be more organizations that act as a bridge for youth leaders, and who offer services like MOU contracts for those without charitable status. 

Also, he says that there needs to be innovations in the way banks and foundations think about loaning out money to youth organizations, and making sure that youth who want to start things or innovate, have more upfront capital, and products like accessible short-term loans.

However, this shift in thinking for institutions needs to start with acknowledging that youth deserve to be compensated for the work that they do. 

“I think now there’s this wider perception in society that youth are willing to do things for less money,” says Cadungog.That’s problematic now because when funders look at youth, they look at the budgets that youth send them and they call it unreasonable. They say ‘this person could do something for such little money, so why can’t you do the same thing?’” 

Up until quite recently, there haven’t been many streams of funding specifically for youth environmental leaders, and so young people have always had to volunteer their time to do crucial work. But even now, people still expect that sacrifice from youth. “This perpetuates the state of poverty of youth scraping for the little morsels, because it’s either they accept little morsels or they get nothing,” says Cadungog.  

To encourage youth to stay in the sector long term — and encourage more young people to join the movement — youth environmental leaders need to be paid living wages. 

From the funders’ side, Heather McGray, director at the Climate Justice Resilience (CJR) Fund, works with and funds many youth-led environmental organizations now, but she says their organization had a lot of trouble finding youth groups when they were first starting out as a fund.

“We were looking for youth leadership, and we saw it in the news all the time when it comes to climate advocacy, but those groups weren’t finding us. They weren’t approaching us and didn’t seem to have received our calls for proposals,” says McGray, adding that this disconnect can be traced back to the fact that youth groups aren’t connected to bigger, established organizations within the sector. 

CJR Fund was mostly tapped into traditional philanthropy networks, and so didn’t come across youth leaders who were doing crucial grassroots work. McGray says over time CJR Fund developed a better youth network and has been able to get word out about funding opportunities or announcements through channels that youth actually use. 

“It’s not rocket science; it’s figuring out where your audiences are, finding them, and talking to them in ways they understand,” says McGray. 


Trusting youth, and treating them as autonomous beings 

In many ways, Cadungog says,young people are not treated as people. They’re seen as not being fully competent, without real knowledge and skills, without valid opinions and sentiments, until they reach a certain age. 

“Youth are not actually treated as autonomous beings — they’re treated as becomings; they’re about to become an autonomous being. But prescribing that to youth is completely flawed,” says Cadungog. 

“Our role in the funding space isn’t to treat youth as becomings and then fund them as if they’re becomings, but treat them as people and allow them to excel.”

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