Youth Philanthropy During COVID-19 and the Success of Hybrid Programming

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At the Sillerman Center, we think about youth philanthropy programs as those that support young people making grants directly to nonprofit organizations and projects, while also mentoring and supporting the youth grantmakers. We view these programs as a form of participatory grantmaking and civic engagement in which young people, who are closest to the problems faced in their own communities, make grantmaking decisions and take on leadership roles. 

We’ve conducted research on youth philanthropy for the past six years, so from the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S. in March 2020, we wanted to learn how youth philanthropy programs fared during the pandemic. As the first installment of a two-part blog series on our most recent research, this post will explore some of the successes and barriers of various virtual, in-person, and hybrid youth philanthropy program models. We’ll summarize some of our most significant data points from the research and provide recommendations for those looking to continue or start hybrid programming.  

The research

In order to conduct research on youth philanthropy programming throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we disseminated The State of Youth Philanthropy: 2020-2021 Survey to 244 youth philanthropy programs across seven U.S. states. Our goal was to assess youth philanthropy program participation, barriers to access, and what was working to break down these barriers. We received 86 survey responses, with 65 respondents (75.5 percent) indicating that they ran youth philanthropy programs from 2020-2021. 

Based on findings from this survey, we completed “The State of Youth Philanthropy: 2020-2021.” In this brief, we note that youth unemployment rose throughout the beginning of the pandemic, and simultaneously, so did the need for mental health services and support due to the pandemic, job loss, and vast racial and social injustices and uprisings. Despite drastically increased youth unemployment and mental health needs, young people have overcome obstacles and participated at great rates in youth philanthropy programs, upholding robust participatory decision making, grantmaking, and leadership practices. As a program director from New York explained, “The teens who are participating in the program saw this as an opportunity to really support the community during such a challenging time when other avenues of support, like volunteering, were limited.” 

In their survey responses, program directors stated that program engagement barriers and challenges most frequently included a lack of staff availability to run or support the programs and a lack of technology or access to technology training. These barriers were exacerbated by the rapid transition to virtual learning and changes in staff schedules and commitments. Additionally, in order for young people to participate in programs, they needed to have access to the internet and, ideally, a computer or tablet rather than a cell phone.

The success of hybrid models

Although the transition to virtual programming remains a challenge, 76 percent of respondents indicated that even when it is safe to run programs in-person, they will continue using some aspect of virtual programming, creating hybrid program models. Virtual programming helps ensure program momentum and some level of youth engagement during challenging times. As a program director from Pennsylvania noted in their survey response, virtual youth philanthropy programming is an opportunity to engage young people in grantmaking as well as a “time to help young people make sense of what is going on around them.”

Survey respondents offered some recommendations for successful hybrid models. Program directors indicated that, for virtual programming, running shorter sessions and having more small-group work were important for engagement. They may choose to limit the number of participants or increase the amount of staff support if programs continue virtually. Additionally, more one-on-one check-ins with young people are crucial. Another recommendation was that curriculum may need to be more open-ended in a virtual setting. 

Based on survey responses, hybrid programming will include use of Zoom or other video conferencing platforms to enable those young people who can’t attend the program in-person to still engage. As a program director from Michigan noted, “Virtual programming allows [young people] to participate when transportation is an issue.” It also helps break down geographical barriers.

Respondents also stated that they will continue to use other software and technology to engage young people in hybrid programming. Program directors discussed using WhatsApp to communicate with young people, survey and polling platforms such as Kahoot, and animated slides using programs such as Canva. A program director from California recommended creating a culture where young people can make the most of the chat feature in Zoom as well as the use of Jamboards to create a more in-person feel. Other recommendations for hybrid programming include virtual site visits, so that neither program participants nor potential grantees have to travel, and virtual grant presentations.

However, survey results clearly indicated that young people miss in-person meetings. They find it more challenging to get to know one another virtually and they miss socializing with one another during lunch, dinner, or breaktime. Many programs provided meals for their young people when in-person, with some families relying on this support.


Based on findings from The State of Youth Philanthropy: 2020-2021 survey and these past conversations, holding  the vast majority of sessions virtually (when necessary), with some opportunity for in-person engagement (such as an in-person retreat or social time at the beginning and/or end of each program cycle) could be a good balance for hybrid programming. Program directors find that the young people feel more connected and get to know each other quicker when they have the opportunity to meet in-person, even if aspects of the programs remain virtual. 

In The State of Youth Philanthropy: 2020-2021 brief, we conclude that young people are dedicated to their youth philanthropy programs, even through challenging times. They are driven to support one another and their communities. Young people and their adult supporters have gone above and beyond during this time and, as a program director from California put it, it is clear that young people, when entrusted with high levels of responsibility, will step-up. 

In the second part of this blog series, we’ll explore the importance of engaging parents and guardians in their children’s youth philanthropy work. 

Sheryl Seller is the assistant director at the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis University

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.