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Learn how to start a youth-driven organization focused on issues they care about.


Photo of teenagers with gadgets sitting on the floor against a brick wall.


You're an adult, walking through the shopping mall, when you see a bunch of teenagers horsing around. You're amazed at their energy--or maybe, you're appalled by some of their antics. You wish (for the hundredth time - you have kids of your own) that you could channel that energy into something productive.

Or maybe you're a teenager, and a girl at school just committed suicide. She wasn't a good friend of yours, but still--you feel really bad. You wonder what you could have done, or if there were signs you just missed. You even look on the Internet for some information on teen suicide, but you need more than facts. You want to find a way to make sure that this doesn't happen again at your school. You know that some of your friends feel the same way--but what can you all do?

Either as a concerned young person or an interested adult, one option open to you is starting a youth organization. Organizations that are run by or for youth can offer a lot to your community. Think of all of the organizations you already know about--you've probably been involved in some yourself, at one time or another. There are groups centered around almost every topic you can think of, with a huge variety of goals. Here's a grab-bag of examples:

  • Boy Scouts
  • Soccer leagues
  • SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving)
  • A student chapter of Amnesty International
  • A class that volunteers in the community
  • A teen advisory panel for a city-wide health organization

Youth organizations can be started by young people themselves or by interested adults. In this section, we'll try to look at the steps in developing a youth organization from the perspectives of both groups. We'll start with a look at what a youth group can be, and at the overall advantages of starting one. Then we'll talk briefly about who should start such a group, and the unique advantages of an adult organizing the group or of the young people doing it themselves. Next, we'll look at the right time for starting such a group, and then at how you should go about doing it. Finally, we'll wrap up with a section for adult mentors, with special tips on working with young people.

What form can a youth organization take?

A youth organization can be almost as broad--or as narrow--in scope as an organization for adults, or for the community as a whole. Youth organizations can be run through schools, in churches, in neighborhoods, or at local rec centers. They may operate on a local, national, or even international level. They can be organized and run by young people themselves, or they might be developed by adults such as coaches, ministers, or staff of the local YWCA. A local youth organization can also be one branch of a larger group; for example, a local coalition to decrease substance use might have a youth advisory board that offers suggestions as to what they think will work to stop young people from drinking.

In this section, we are going to concentrate primarily on youth organizations that are developed specifically to improve the community--for example, health organizations such as Students Against Drunk Driving--or groups that are formed to increase participation in civic life. However, many of the ideas that we discuss here can be easily translated to any type of student group, such as youth theater or sports teams.

One example of a successful youth organization is CityKids. CityKids is an organization with branches across the United States. Their mission is to engage and develop diverse young people to positively impact the world.

Their goals are:

  • Having a safe space for youth
  • Promoting open youth-to-youth communication
  • Multicultural bridge building
  • Enhancing leadership development among young people

The group does many different things to try and attain these goals. For example, they hold a weekly "Coalition" meeting where they bring together diverse groups of young people to explore cultural, racial, and sexual issues. The group is involved in many aspects of youth's lives, and offers opportunities for leadership development and guidance for both education and careers.

An off-shoot of CityKids is the CityKids Repertory Company, in which young people transform feelings and experiences about youth issues into music, dance, and drama. They perform their skits in their neighborhoods and at schools, community centers, and prisons. They have performed on stage, and some of their work has been developed into videos and shown on television. For example, the group developed Kayla's story, a video that documents a fictional teen pregnancy. The video is distributed across the nation.

CityKids is a successful example of young people choosing issues they find important, finding a safe space, and helping one another strengthen their community. The organization helps them gain leadership skills and a close-knit peer group, and it sends a positive message to youth throughout the community.

Why establish youth organizations?

Participation in a youth organization has many advantages for the youth themselves, as well as for the entire community. Of course, the most obvious advantage of membership is that youth organizations provide young people a forum to fully, effectively deal with an issue that is especially important to them, such as youth violence or education. However, there are a lot of other advantages to youth groups. We list some of these advantages below.

Advantages for young people:

  • Being part of a group can help young people develop important personal and interpersonal skills. These include the ability to think critically and solve problems, and the assumption of personal and group responsibility.
  • It can also help young people gain self-confidence and self-esteem. Contributing to a group can help them see themselves as being able to really help other people, and having something important to offer.
  • It can help reduce the risk of becoming involved in unsafe activities, such as using drugs and alcohol. Being involved in community activities has been shown to be a protective factor--that is, it helps young people to make healthy choices. That's because by being involved in an organization, they can develop a "safe" identity, and are less likely to participate in unsafe activities (such as becoming sexually active before they are ready) to feel they belong.
  • Young people involved in organizations can develop job skills, including organization, the ability to run meetings, and experience working with a wide variety of people. These skills that young people learn from being part of a group can help them be better prepared for any job they might choose.
  • Often, organizations give youth a "safe space" that they wouldn't have otherwise--a place where they can express themselves through arts and activities, or just by being able to talk openly with peers and caring adults.
  • Youth organizations offer opportunities for leadership that young people might not get otherwise.
  • Young people involved in organizations can receive information on staying safe and healthy from their peers or adults they know and respect. They then pass on this information to other young people. In this way, youth organizations offer a credible way for young people to learn about staying healthy, because they can learn about it from friends they admire, rather than adults or other outsiders whose opinions they might not value.
  • Young people can develop a strong support network of other young people who make healthy choices, and who can help convince them to stay healthy, too.

Advantages for the community:

  • Youth organizations can help change public perception of young people from being "the problem" to an important part of making life better in the community.
  • Involving young people in the community helps them see themselves as part of the whole; they really do become less likely to cause problems and more likely to want to look for solutions.
  • By involving young people, the community is allowing them to carefully develop their leadership potential, so that as they grow and learn they can become thoughtful, prepared leaders of the society.
  • Other community organizations can often partner with youth organizations, to mutual benefit. Young people can bring a tremendous amount of life to an organization; often, their energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and perspective are invaluable to members of larger community initiatives that choose to actively involve them.

Who should establish youth organizations?

As we said above, youth organizations can be started by two broad groups of people: young people themselves, or an adult who cares about them. Both options make sense in some circumstances, and both offer their own unique advantages. Let's look at some of the ideas behind both groups starting youth organizations.


Adults who begin or sponsor youth organizations can come from almost anywhere. Most commonly, they include teachers, coaches, ministers, parents, and staff of social service agencies. Sometimes, they don't have any direct tie to young people, but have experience or expertise they'd like to pass on. ("I was a mom at 16, and I'd like to help new teen parents survive all of the challenges.")

Wherever they come from, what adults who start youth organizations do (or should ) have in common is their commitment -- to youth, to helping people, and to the group's goals.

Being an insider (someone the local young people know and respect, such as a popular teacher) can make it much easier to start a youth organization. Insiders often find it easier to plan activities that are interesting to youth. They know the area, know the kids, and know what's likely to work. (They also may have a better idea of what students will probably just think is "lame.") Also, young people might be more attracted to programs started by insiders because they know and trust them. If the adult sponsor is from the same area or ethnic group, the young people might feel that they have a better chance of the adult understanding what they are going through, and the circumstances that they have to deal with on a daily basis. This is especially true when groups are involved in sensitive issues, such as drug abuse, violence, or teen sexuality.

Of course, people from outside the community can come to the community to work, and they sometimes bring great success. Often, these people do work that is connected to a national organization like the YMCA or the Girl Scouts. While they will have to overcome the challenges of becoming known and respected by young people in the community, these outsiders can bring a recognized name and successful programming to new communities. Another advantage of having an outsider start a youth group is that she can bring new energy, a new perspective, and additional resources to a community.

Regardless of whether the adult is an insider or an outsider, having an adult organize or sponsor the group can add credibility to the youth organization, helping young people gather both respect and resources. For example, most young people haven't ever written grant applications, while an adult sponsor may very well have done so. For this reason, most youth organizations might want to at least have an adult with whom the group is affiliated. It can open doors that are usually (unfortunately, and unfairly, but realistically) closed to young people working on their own.

Key Club is an international organization dedicated to community service that was founded through the Kiwanis Club in 1925. Every Key Club conducts an active program of service for school and the community. Projects are centered around a different theme every year.

The club's objectives are to develop leadership, to serve school and community, and to help young people prepare for useful citizenship. Each Key Club is sponsored and overseen by the local Kiwanis club, with Key Club members attending Kiwanis meetings and vice versa. Students involved in Key Club work to improve their community through an established international network, drawing on each other for support and ideas on community development.

Young people

Of course, young people are usually all too aware of the issues that affect them, whether those issues include violence, suicide, or anything else. They also know what's really happening much better than most adults hired to lead a student organization. They may work together and form a formal organization, such as SADD, or something much less formal to stay informed and get things done without a lot of resources.

Riot grrrl is an attempt to develop an "all girl" sub-culture. It's a feminist network that developed in the underground music communities of Olympia, Washington and Washington, DC. Originally formed by the members of the bands Brat Mobile and Bikini Kill, the organization now supports activities that are not only music related, but focus on racism, classism, sexism, and supporting young women in staying safe and healthy. Although the network is very informal, information is distributed and networks are set up through paper and electronic "zines," self-published independent texts devoted to various issues and hobbies. The zines often enclose notes requesting feedback and personal interaction with readers. Many zines cover sensitive topics, such as rape and child abuse, and young women can write the zines to seek support.

Riot grrrl is a good example of an informal network that addresses issues that are important to youth. Since all of the work is done by young people themselves, it serves as a great way to empower the young people who develop it and those who just surf by their web pages.

When is a good time to establish an organization?

Really, there's probably not a bad time, especially if young people are interested in starting a group. But some time periods and events lend themselves particularly well to mobilizing young people to improve their communities. These times include:

  • When a dramatic, disturbing, or significant event occurs in the community, such as some of the recent teen murder-suicides that have occurred at high schools across the nation
  • At the beginning of the school year, when young people are anxious to get to know each other, to belong, and to learn what's going on
  • When new information becomes known. For example, a local group may survey young people and find that a large number of them report getting drunk on a regular basis. This information might be the stimulus to start a group to try to curb youth drinking.
  • When current organizations are not meeting community needs
  • When a group wants to create broad, significant community changes. This is a good example of a time when it makes sense to include young people in a larger group, such as starting a youth advisory board for a city-wide organization.
  • To respond to threats to the community, such as increased violence
  • When a significant issue specifically concerning youth needs to be confronted

How do you establish youth organizations?

Decide what type of youth organization you want to form

If you are a young person yourself, you may already know what type of group you would like to form. But at the very least, you'll probably want to ask your friends and other young people how they feel about that issue. Ask very direct questions, such as:

  • What problems are so important to people our age/to our community that you would join a group to change them?
  • What is the biggest concern for young people today?
  • What's the real cause of the problem?
  • What do you think should be done about the problem?
  • Do you know of anything going on right now to solve the problem? (This question is a good way to learn about things you might not know are going on, that you could team up with to be more effective.)

You might also talk to people who are potential sponsors to see what their suggestions are, and how they feel about your ideas.

Adults, too, might have specific ideas (or grant money) to work on a particular issue in a particular way. However, if you're an adult, it's even more important to get feedback on what you are thinking about doing. Are young people interested in what you want to work on? Would they be willing to commit time and resources to it? Is it something they believe in?

Adults, like young people, will probably also want to get support from others in the community. They may be able to donate space or resources that you need. Also, if you're organizing a youth group for the first time, they might have some great tips as to what is most effective in working with young people in your community.

One option you will want to consider is whether or not you want the group to be affiliated with a national organization. For example, if you know a group of young people interested in human rights, should they start a local chapter of Amnesty International, or should they develop a small local organization that focuses on the treatment of migrant workers in your area? Many national and international organizations exist that can offer support and resources to a fledgling organization. However, your group may feel it wants more autonomy, or isn't interested in being part of a large, impersonal-seeming organization. The answer may be clear from the start for your group, but it's important to make sure the question is raised before you begin your work.

Decide where the organization should be based

Where the organization is based has a lot to do in determining who will join. Many of your meetings and other activities will be held there. You may get resources, such as money and supplies, depending on where you are located. And possibly most important, a lot of people who join the organization may join because they are already affiliated with the organization's home base -- they're students at the school, or members of the church, or so on. It's important to realize, too, that some young people may not join an organization because of where it's located. For example, a high school dropout may not want to come back to her old school for any reason.

Very commonly, youth organizations operate out of schools, churches and synagogues, social service agencies, or informally out of someone's home. Each of these options--as well as others you might come up with--will have advantages and disadvantages. You'll want to think this through before you decide where to set it up.

Maybe this isn't even a question for your group. If you want to convince young people who have dropped out of school to return to class or obtain their GEDs, a high school clearly isn't the place to find participants. However, for a coach who is interested in forming a chapter of SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving), the local high school is absolutely the best place to do it. Not only is the group, by nature, a student organization, with many of its activities run in conjunction with other school activities (such as prom), the coach will have most credibility at her school, where she and the students already know each other.

However, the situation isn't always as clear-cut as those above. For example, your organization might have been given some seed money to work with young people that came with very loose guidelines. If you want to, you could base the group at the high school (where a lot of kids are), at your organization (you really don't have much room, but at least you know where everything is), or maybe you should partner with the local YMCA, where a lot of the kids hang out. What do you do?

When the proposed location isn't absolutely clear, then those people who are starting the organization might want to sit down and discuss what makes most sense for the group. You might start by brainstorming all of the possible places where you could host the group, and then list the advantages and disadvantages of each. Members of the group might discuss:

  • Would this place be willing to host us?
  • Would the young people we want to recruit feel comfortable going there?
  • Would there be any financial costs to our group?
  • Would this place be willing to help us out with resources?
  • Is it a place that agrees with (or at least, isn't opposed to) what we are doing? (For example, a Catholic school might not be the ideal location for safe sex education that included a discussion of birth control.)
  • Do members of our group have strong ties to this place?
  • How difficult would it be for young people to get to this place?

Often, after looking at these questions (and others that members of your group might think of), answers to this problem become completely clear.

Recruit members (and, if necessary, adult assistants)

Of course, you can't have an organization--youth-based or otherwise--without members. And so your next step is to get the word out about what you are doing. How you will do this will depend on who you want to recruit. Do you want to recruit only students? Members of your parish? Young people from all over town? The process of recruiting members can be as simple as making an announcement in an assembly or after church or as complicated as running a campaign with radio public service announcements getting the word out across town.

With all the possibilities, however, it's important that you don't forget plain old word of mouth. Getting kids to talk up your group is the best way to ensure that you have the members you want and need. This is often especially true when dealing with "at-risk" youth, who may not even be at school or church when you make your announcement.

As we mentioned above, if your group has been started by young people, you might decide to involve adults as sponsors or facilitators. In that case, decide whom you would feel comfortable with as your sponsor, and exactly what you would want him to do for your group. It's probably best to decide on a short list of (four or five) people to ask, in case your first choice(s) don't have the time or interest to help your group out.

Before you approach someone, you should also have an understanding of exactly what you would want her to do for your organization. For example, would she need to show up at every meeting? Speak up for the organization at faculty meetings? Help you obtain resources, such as money, equipment, and a meeting place? If you haven't thought this out and discussed it with your potential sponsor, neither you nor the sponsor will be clear on her role. This can easily lead to frustration, anger, and missed opportunities for everyone involved.

Define your goals clearly with group members

Once you have your members together, it's time to sit down and make a plan. Members might brainstorm for ideas, but essentially, you will want to try to answer two questions:

  • What do we want to do?
  • How should we go about doing that?

The better organized you are, the more likely it is your group will succeed.

Find out what resources are available to your organization

Especially if your group is affiliated with a larger organization, such as a school, church, or national group, there are probably resources out there that could help you. Find out what they are, and how you can get them transferred to your organization.

In addition to groups you are affiliated with somehow, there might be other sources willing to support a youth organization. Grants or mini-grants might be available from the government, private sources, or local coalitions; other organizations with similar goals might be willing to help you out. This support can come in many different forms, from money to a meeting place to free advertising. Ask around; see what resources similar organizations, either in your town or similar places, have managed to get, and ask how they've gotten them. The United Way might be able to point you to some resources as well.

And beyond all of that, the simplest thing to do is think about what you need, and who is likely to be able to give that to you most easily. Need paint? Try asking the owner of the local hardware store. Need publicity? Call the local radio station, and ask what their policy is for producing and airing public service announcements (PSAs). And so on.

Obtain and use those resources

Once you've found out what is possible, go for it! And don't forget a thank you note to whoever helps you out.

It can be hard (and sometimes frightening!) to ask for money or help from other people or organizations. This can be especially true for young people, who might find the idea of going in and trying to speak with a bank president to be daunting. Remember, though, that you're not asking for help for yourself--you're asking them to support a cause you believe in. So square your shoulders and give it a try. The only sure thing is that if you don't ask, you won't get the help your organization needs.

Orient and train staff, adult assistants, and participants

This step may be less necessary in some situations than in others. If you're developing an informal rap group for teen parents, there probably isn't a whole lot of training involved. But in any group, it's important that you sit down at the very start and talk about what is expected from both staff (if there are any involved) and from participants. For example, even in our hypothetical rap group mentioned above, there will be some ground work to do: You might want facilitators to do some reading about teen parents (especially if they don't have much experience with them), or about learning to be an effective facilitator. At the first meeting, the facilitator might then take some time to show the parents around the facilities, lead an "ice-breaker " so the teens will feel more comfortable speaking openly, and help them develop "ground rules" that will be followed in future meetings.

Get to work!

Now that you've decided what you want to do, go to it! With the hard work of planning behind you (at least for the moment--there will always be changes on the way), it's time take a deep breath and go to it!

Celebrate your successes!

Even if something wasn't the huge success you hoped it would be, everyone should give themselves proper credit for what has been accomplished. Organizing a youth group of any kind is hard work. Be sure to celebrate all of your small successes along the way. Not only do you deserve it, but celebrating will also help keep energy high, so your group will be able to move on to bigger and better things.

Special section: Help for adults seeking success in building a youth organization

There's no question that being an adult mentor or facilitator for a youth organization can be hard work, especially if this is the first time you have done so. However, it can also be a richly rewarding experience. Some of the tips below might help you in your quest to run a fun, successful organization for youth without pulling out all of your hair in the process.

  • Think of young people as resources, rather than as troublemakers or a difficult population that you need to help in spite of themselves. Having a positive attitude in which you see young people as having great potential rather than being "at-risk troublemakers" is the best way to be sure you will get the best they have to offer. Most times when working with young people, you get what you expect. If you make it clear to them that you think they are the greatest kids on earth, chances are they'll work very hard to live up to that view.
  • Make sure that the young people are responsible for a large portion of the planning and decision-making. Even if you are running a grant program given by a federal agency with strict limitations, it's very important to pass as much authority as possible on to the youth themselves. This should help them believe in the organization--that it's really there for them, not just as a way for your organization to use them to get more money.
  • Think about turning the organization into a "full-service organization" where young people can come for help and friendship--a place where they can find a safe and trusted ear in addition to the stated goals of your organization. All too often, young people feel they have nowhere to turn, and no one to speak with about troubles they have. Let the young people know quite explicitly that you're there for them, and that they can come to you with any problems that they have.
  • Give young people the opportunity for real responsibilities and real work. If you do so (and make sure it's coupled with real support), chances are it will lead to real accomplishments. Also, try to give them the responsibility they are ready for. Often times, this means starting out small, and then as they become more adept and experienced, slowly making their responsibilities more challenging. That way, competence should grow along with confidence.
  • Make sure that roles and rules are clearly defined. If all decisions will be with adults (although we don't recommend it), it's better to say so up front. If some decisions are out of your hands as well as theirs, let them know that, too. Young people usually know when you're not being straight with them--it's a great way to lose their respect in a hurry.
  • Finally, remember that as a leader or a staff member of a youth organization you are both a role model and an example to the young people who know you. What you say and how you act--even when you are not working in your "official" capacity--will not only influence their opinion of you, it may also influence their decisions and actions in the future.

In Summary

Youth organizations can offer terrific benefits to local young people and the community at large. They can have a tremendous impact on the lives of youth. Whether you are a young person yourself, or simply someone concerned about your community, we encourage you to explore the creation of a youth organization in your community today!

Catie Heaven

Online  Resources

Youth Tree USA

This website allows nonprofit organizations to list and explain their organizations free of charge, and also offers youth a place to develop their own website. Youth Tree USA's mission is:

  • To provide the most comprehensive Internet Directory of programs, services, and resources promoting the healthy development of youth (K-college students) and families.
  • To provide an affordable means of enhancing youth and family service providers' ability to use electronic communications to expand their efforts in local communities nationwide.
  • To foster networking and information-sharing among youth and family service providers and facilitate opportunities for collaborative partnerships

Print Resources

The Coach's Playbook Against Drugs. US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention.

Leonard, M. (1998). Paper planes: Travelling the new grrrl geographies. In Tracey Skelton & Gill Valentine (eds.). Cool places: Geographies of youth cultures. London, England: Routledge, 101-120.

McLauglin, M., Irby, M., & Langman, J. (1994). Urban sanctuaries. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Partners for Youth Leadership (1990). Youth involvement: Developing leaders and strengthening communities. Boulder, Colorado: US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Tlingit-Haida builds youth identity, leadership (1997, April). Building partnerships for better communities. US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Native American Programs: Aspen Systems Corporation.

Wolff, T. & Foster, D. (1997). Principles of success in building community coalitions. In Gillian, K., & Wolff, T. (eds.). From the ground up. Amherst, MA: AHEC/Community Partners.(Available from Tom Wolff and Associates.)