Strategies for Youth Engagement
The Annie E. Casey Foundation is committed to partnering with young people to develop solutions to the issues that affect their lives. The Foundation’s work benefits from these fresh perspectives, and youth gain important leadership experience through the process. But how and when should youth engagement happen? And when it does, what are effective, thoughtful ways to approach engaging young people in an organization’s work, especially one that does not directly serve youth?
To answer those questions, the Foundation enlisted partners and young people to help identify the youth engagement methods that have successfully advanced its goals. Our findings: There is not one right approach to youth engagement but a continuum of strategies that can help leaders and practitioners partner with young people in their efforts.
The Foundation adopted a continuum based on examples in the field, including a 2021 Casey Foundation-funded report from UCLA’s Center for the Developing Adolescent. It also considered the experiences of its Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative™ — a multi-decade effort that employs authentic youth engagement to advance policies and practices in service of young people transitioning from foster care. The range of strategies can help organizations assess when youth engagement makes sense, the various forms it can take — including potential activities for staff and young people — and the feasibility, benefits and challenges of each.
Deciding When and How to Engage Young People
“With so many ways to approach youth engagement, it’s important to understand what the options are and that there’s not just one,” said Laura Speer, the Casey Foundation’s director of strategy. “It’s important to start by identifying the approach that fits the work at hand then following it consistently in a way that sets young people up for meaningful contributions, interactions and success in their work with you.”
The Foundation’s iteration of the continuum begins with a decision about whether a given project or strategy would benefit from youth engagement, and whether that area of work allows for the preparation, input and consultation that thoughtful youth engagement requires. Some aspects of an organization’s work — such as administrative decisions or program activities with a tight timeline — may not be appropriate areas for youth engagement.
Five Ways Organizations Can Engage Youth
Once an organization has decided it’s appropriate to engage youth, the continuum offers five levels of engagement to consider.
Organizations inform young people about planned activities or strategies and collect their feedback, but staff manage the project and execute the work. Staff gain information that can strengthen solutions and avoid blind spots. Youth can preview information but have a limited ability to inform and shape projects or outcomes.
Staff set project boundaries, manage project design and development and execute the work. Young people are asked for high-level input once the strategy, policy or program is partially developed. This approach gives staff helpful information to craft strong solutions. Young people can contribute to planning and problem solving, though having less control may lead to inconsistent participation.
As with the Consult approach, staff manage the design and development of projects and are responsible for executing the work. However, this level of engagement involves young people at the onset, and they contribute consistently and meaningfully throughout the process. This gives youth the chance to provide substantial input and engage with staff more effectively.
Staff collaborate fully with young people on the design and development process, agreeing on expected results, project timing and boundaries. Staff and youth share responsibility for executing the work and young people build leadership skills. This approach can take a lot of time, and roles and authority can sometimes blur.
After staff and young people work together to establish anticipated results, project timing and boundaries, youth drive the project and must execute the work. Youth-led work is only feasible when young people have decision-making responsibility in all aspects of planning, design and implementation.
Teams may use different youth engagement strategies at different phases of work. For example, youth may collaborate with staff at the start of a project and be consulted later.
Additional Youth Engagement Resources
Learn more about effectively engaging youth with these resources:
- Review early lessons on engaging youth in community change, developed in Youthprise-led sessions with Casey Foundation grantees.
- Read about the benefits of authentic youth engagement at four of the Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative sites.
- Learn about supporting successful partnerships between young people and adults, with advice informed by the Jim Casey Initiative’s over 20 years of experience in authentic youth engagement.
- Meet young-adult fellows in the Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential (LEAP)™ initiative who work to support youth engagement and leadership.