Youth Leaders Put Climate on the Agenda, But Get Philanthropic Scraps. They're Ready for Abundance

YCJF’s members Archana Soreng, Dominique Palmer, Mitzi Tan Jonelle, Joshua Amponsem, Ayisha Siddiqa, Nathan Metenier, Maximo Mazzocco, Sriranjini Raman and Hilda Flavia Nakabuye at their 2023 strategy retreat.

It was late 2019. Young people from around the world had just put together the biggest climate protest ever. Youth leaders like Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate and Xiye Bastida were suddenly stars, with political leaders asking them for selfies. Even philanthropy had taken note — but something was lacking.

“Our pictures were used on some annual reports,” recalled Nathan Méténier, a youth activist who cofounded Generation Climate Europe. “It just wasn't reflected so much in the funding.” 

Just as most politicians seemed more interested in photos than action, philanthropists weren’t coughing up much of any funding for youth climate leadership. “Raising $100,000 was almost impossible — in Europe — and that was completely crazy to us,” said Méténier, now 24, who at the time was leading fundraising for Youth and Environment Europe, the continent’s largest network of environmental justice youth groups. “There was this sort of ceiling that we couldn’t cross.” 

Four years later, with the help of a few early philanthropic partners, a globe-spanning group of 17 youth leaders — many still in their 20s, and all of them busy leading some of the world’s important youth climate movement groups — have created a fund to do what much of climate philanthropy has failed to do in that time: back young activists fighting for their futures.

The new Youth Climate Justice Fund opened up its first round of applications in late August, and officially launched at this week’s Climate Week NYC, where the fund is the event’s official environmental justice partner. It will issue $500,000 in awards by the end of the year, in flexible grants of $10,000 to $30,000, and has already received more than 1,300 applications — a figure that doubled in the week-plus after I spoke with them — with more than 20 inquiries hitting the team’s inboxes daily.

Yet this new fund, which has raised $1.8 million in seed funding, has a vision much bigger than grantmaking. It wants to help youth leaders understand philanthropy, while also connecting existing philanthropists with young activists. And it hopes not only to help its many existing peer funds grow, but to inspire a wave of similar funds around the world to supercharge an already powerful youth movement. 

This year’s victories alone are impressive. Sixteen young people won a groundbreaking climate case in Montana, and a group of Pacific Islander students helped secure a UN resolution that makes it easier to hold polluting countries liable for climate damages. Last year, youth pressure was key to pushing through the creation of a loss-and-damage fund with $230 million in pledges. And everyday organizing by youth in cities and towns around the world is critical in advancing and implementing policy.

Perhaps most importantly, and devastatingly, young people are the ones who will have to live with our decisions. In the words of Katie Eder of the Future Coalition, “Youth may be 25% of the population, but we are 100% of the future.” 

What the fund wants to change

More money, of course, is the first step. The hope is to coax philanthropy to give more than pennies on the dollar to youth-led climate justice initiatives, which in recent years have received just 0.76% of all climate grants from major foundations. That’s just $42.5 million.

Those numbers, in fact, are only available because the Youth Climate Justice Fund’s leaders received a $500,000 seed grant from the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, which allowed them to commission research from The Hour Is Late, using data from ClimateWorks Foundation. The result was the Youth Climate Justice Study, which lays out those statistics and more in what is likely the most fascinating 129-slide deck you’ll ever see.

The fund’s other backers include Oak Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Open Society Foundations, 128 Collective, and Climate Land Use Alliance, all of which awarded between $100,000 and $250,000. EarthPercent, European Climate Foundation and individual donors have contributed smaller amounts.

In addition to expanding the funding pool, the team wants it spread around more equitably. Most youth climate funding goes to the U.S. — even though it accounts for just 1% of climate philanthropy there — and grants are concentrated in just 10 countries. There’s also an impossibly long list of structural barriers for youth climate activists beyond just funding. Some can’t afford to attend events. Others don’t have computers, or don’t speak English. Many may risk imprisonment, assault or even death. 

The fund is taking measures to offset those barriers. It’s offering its application in seven languages — English, Portuguese, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, Swahili and French. It has options for those unable to submit an application by computer. And eventually, it hopes to provide not just money, but technical and leadership support for youth groups. Those offerings are not fully developed yet, largely because the team wants future grantees to tell them what is needed. (Taking notes, foundations?) But possible lessons include how-tos on HR systems, legal requirements, strategy development and other common topics. 

Would-be grantees can already get some application assistance from the team’s regional leads, who will also screen all incoming applications, based on what the field tells them are priorities. Then an eight-member steering committee will make final grantee selections. From top to bottom, it’s a group with oodles of experience. Not only do members have serious organizing credentials, several are former and current members of the U.N. secretary-general’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.

The fund also aims to connect would-be grantees needing support with current grantees who have relevant experience and cultural context. With applications flowing in, leaders know they will have lots of potential teachers. “It's going to be a huge pool of different organizations,” said the fund’s Strategy Director Joshua Amponsem, who is also the founder of Green Africa Youth Organization, one of the continent’s largest youth climate groups. 

The fund plans to offer feedback to those applicants who don’t walk away with a grant. Advice might consist of “this is how you can improve, this fund might be better suited for you, or this is how I can support you,” said Amponsem, who is 31.

“The most powerful thing that a funder can offer is the relationship, not the money,” he said. “It’s being able to understand why you were not funded and being able to point you in the right direction for support.”

The fund is, simultaneously, a work in progress. In an intentional bid to create a more “horizontal” operation, it has no executive director. It is doing participatory grantmaking, but the team would like to go further and work out how grantees, or even applicants, can weigh in on who gets funded, said Méténier, who serves as fund’s development director. “We’re also on a journey,” he said.

“Those spaces do not have youth activists at the table”

Lina Fedirko is ClimateWorks Foundation’s associate director of road transportation, a role that often puts her in rooms with the people — typically “older citizens,” as she put it — who run the systems that determine how we move around our world. That does not always leave her with a lot of optimism.

“When you're working on advancing policy for a while, you happen to be in similar spaces all the time. A lot of those spaces do not have youth activists at the table,” she said. “It starts to feel a certain way… of feeling stuck, or of very incremental movement.”

So when Fedirko encountered the leaders of the Youth Climate Justice Fund for the first time, thanks to her participation in the Urban Movement Innovation Fund, a donor collaborative whose focus areas include youth movements, it left her “really excited.” I could hear it in her voice as she told me.

“Their reflections and their ambition really felt refreshing,” she said. “I was like, wow, I am feeling better about climate change because you guys are involved and are so active, thorough and thoughtful.” Fedirko, who is 35, actually qualifies under the fund’s definition of youth, which cuts off at that age, yet it was still a wake-up call. 

“It was, for me, the first time that I felt like I really recognized how much is at stake for them,” she said. “I was not thinking about climate change at 18 or 19, and getting involved to the level that they are, so it double-tapped the sense of urgency.”

ClimateWorks Foundation later made a “no strings attached,” $220,000 grant to the fund, which was one of the fund’s biggest awards yet. Aside from working with the Urban Movement Innovation Fund, ClimateWorks has also funded intermediaries like Youth4Nature ($352,685 over 18 months) to work on carbon removal, and supported the Ghana-based Strategic Youth Network for Development ($68,990, one year). 

Youth leaders lack the investment to “bring their ideas to life”

Daniela Fernandez, founder and CEO of Sustainable Ocean Alliance, a network of young ocean leaders, has seen the funding gaps for young leaders firsthand. Organizations that connect young climate advocates with philanthropy, like the Youth Climate Justice Fund, are essential to changing that status quo, she said.

“Younger generations are the driving force behind the climate movement, and we need to ensure funding levels reflect that reality,” said Fernandez, who is 29, via email. “I’ve watched as youth leaders develop innovative, groundbreaking solutions, but lack the investment to bring these ideas to life.”

One obstacle is that funders still tend to fund in silos or sectors, whereas youth movements, like our lives, do not stay within those artificial lines. Changing practices, such as what incoming president Deepak Bhargava proposes to do at JPB Foundation, would be a comprehensive way to overcome such self-imposed barriers.

But there are other means. For ClimateWorks — the bulk of whose grantmaking is guided by its backers’ choices, similar to other intermediaries — a recently launched $1 million pilot fund for justice and equity grantmaking has been integral to moving money to causes like youth movements, Fedirko said.

“There is an ecosystem, and it can absorb a very large amount of money”

The Youth Climate Justice Fund team is quick to point out that this is neither the first, nor the only fund supporting youth climate groups. Other intermediaries backing young activists include the CLIMA Fund, Climate Justice Resilience Fund, Global Greengrants, Global Youth Climate Action Fund and the Youth Climate Fund. There are also 30 foundations in ClimateWorks’ database of climate grants that have funded youth organizing.

YCJF is not even the only youth fund launched at this year’s Climate Week NYC. The Chrysalis Youth Fund, a pooled fund hosted by Synchroncity Earth, also held an announcement party with support from Atmos magazine.

Yet funds do not equate to money — and the need is severe, particularly in the Global South. “If we were to fund the rest of the world to the level that the U.S. is being funded right now, we would need an extra $158 million per year” for youth climate justice activists, Méténier said.

In a world where some of the most successful and well-connected youth organizers in the world struggled, until recently, to raise $100,000 — even though most foundations spend more than that on a single program officer’s salary — there’s a long way to go. Case in point: The fund itself has only two multi-year awards, from Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and OSF, both of which are for two years.

For now, the team has set a fundraising goal of $5 million in 2024, and twice that the next year. Hopefully, those are targets climate philanthropy will drastically overshoot.

Méténier, Amposem, the fund’s team and countless other youth leaders have been at the center of some of the climate movement’s biggest wins, and they still get some of its smallest checks. No one could begrudge them for being bitter. But if they are, I detected none of it. Instead, Méténier spoke of abundance.

“We're not here to just fundraise” for ourselves, he said. “We're here, if anything, to create a lot of YCJFs everywhere — in the countries, in the regions, to absorb funding where they are.”

“That's something that's really, really dear to us,” he added. “There is an ecosystem. It’s growing, it’s vibrant and it can absorb a very large amount of money.”