Blog: Sustainable youth organisations

Published: 20 Feb 2019

Author: Kerry Astin
Blog: Sustainable youth organisations

During the eight years when I ran a youth charity in London, I would often find myself thinking about the sustainability of my organisation. When I spoke to friends who were also running youth charities, I found that they were asking the same questions: when your funding is time-limited, how can you create job security for your staff? How can you look after the wellbeing of your staff when they are encountering troubling issues such as children experiencing abuse? How do you do such a demanding job without burning out?

These questions matter because the work these organisations do can make a real difference to young people’s lives. At the charity I led, FAST (a part of e:merge), we worked with some of the most marginalised young people in society. We targeted children who had fallen out of the school system or who social services were struggling to work with. Through offering informal education and coaching, we helped these children to start making good decisions for themselves. Some of them underwent profound changes. They began to uncover what their dreams were and where they wanted to be in life.

In 2017, I travelled to the USA on a Churchill Fellowship to learn how grassroots youth organisations are sustaining themselves over there. At one organisation I visited, Homeboy Industries in LA, there was a blurring of lines between staff and beneficiaries. Their founder, Father Gregg Boyle, talked to me about a sense of kinship with the people the organisation work with. There was no ‘us and them’, they were all in it together.

Below: Kerry with Father Gregg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries

Kerry with Father Gregg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries

Learning about this idea of kinship led to a big change in my thinking. With youth work, staff can feel like they’re giving all the time. It’s exhausting. If staff start to feel that they’re gaining something from their relationships with beneficiaries, as well as offering something, this could really benefit their own wellbeing. Caz Tod-Pearson, Director at The Simple Way, a charity based in Philadelphia, also reinforced this view.

Homeboy Industries extended this idea of kinship to donors too. On my trip there, I saw a visitor being greeted enthusiastically by several members of staff. I was surprised to learn that this person was a donor. In the UK, donors rarely see what’s happening on the ground. However, at the charities I visited in the USA, donors are a much bigger and more active part of the picture.

In the UK, charities have what I call a ‘poverty mindset’. We find it hard to offer our staff job perks or take them on team days out, because we don’t want to be seen to be spending donations on things not directly related to charitable activities. However, these are the things that will sustain our staff - and without them, we haven’t got anyone to deliver our mission. Because they’re more embedded in the organisations they support, donors in the USA seem to have a better understanding of this.

Below: Caz Tod-Pearson, Director at The Simple Way

Caz Tod-Pearson, Director at The Simple Way

I’ve now stepped away from the leadership of my youth charity. I’ve started coaching my successor, as well as other people working for youth organisations. I’ve also become an in-house strategist for the UK element of an international missionary charity, looking at some of the issues I explored on my Fellowship, such as staff wellbeing.

For a long time, my world had just been this one charity on one estate in London. The Fellowship made my world bigger. It helped me to see that for UK charities to sustain themselves, there are big systemic and cultural issues that need to be addressed. I now have a wider reach with my work, and I hope this will enable me to play a bigger role in taking on these challenges.

Kerry's Fellowship is supported by The Rank Foundation.

Top picture: a morning pep talk at Homeboy Industries

Read Kerry’s report

Apply for a Fellowship

Sign up for blog alerts