Youth have been at the forefront of the climate and environmental movement for decades and their leadership has contributed to many key wins. Funders can play a key role in financing, supporting, and creating the critical conditions for youth to continue leading in the environmental movement. The Lawson Foundation has been focused on empowering young leaders for many years through their Youth Action and the Environment program. Special thanks to Amanda Mayer and Allison Tse from the Lawson Foundation for sharing their perspectives on empowering young environmental leaders.

1. What type of youth environmental work are you supporting? 

In our Youth Action and the Environment impact area, we directly support youth environmental leaders through our fellowship pilot, which supports young environmental leaders across Canada between the ages of 18 and 25 who want to take the lead on an environmental action project that inspires them. We also support the infrastructure of the youth environmental leadership ecosystem by funding two national youth-led organizations that amplify and elevate youth environmental leaders and youth voices. 

2. Tell us about some of the environmental youth champions that you are supporting through the fellowship.

In our pilot year, we supported four recipients in our fellowship: Maddie Carr in Tay Creek, New Brunswick, working on eco-tourism and heritage conservation; Marium Vahed in Toronto, Ontario, working on environmental education in Muslim secondary schools; Serena Mendizabal in Brantford, Ontario, working on land-back community engagement in the Haldimand Tract; and Alexandra Whiteduck in Ottawa, Ontario, working on safe water access for Indigenous communities.  

To support the infrastructure behind youth environmental leadership in Canada, we made multi-year grants to The Starfish Canada, a national charity that spotlights and educates young environmentalists, and the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship’s Youth Harbour, a pooled philanthropic fund that re-grants to youth climate organizations. 

3. Why motivated you to support young environmentalists?

Lawson’s Youth Action and the Environment impact area was created as a direct result of input from members, particularly our ‘5th Generation’ members. Our members were very interested in young people and the environment, and the interdependence between healthy human development and a sustainable environment. 

 Our 2017 research on the relationship between young people and the environment included a youth retreat focus group with participants from across the country. That became the basis of our current approach in this impact area: a “double bottom line” that seeks to “strengthen youth leadership and civic engagement” and to “encourage connection to nature and environmental action.” 

4. Why is it important to support young environmentalists?

In the words of one our grantees, The Starfish Canada, “young leaders aren’t just the leaders of tomorrow, they’re the leaders of today.” Young people are doing real, innovative and impactful work to protect, advocate for, and promote a sustainable environment, but they often receive less support, less funding, and less attention for their leadership. We want to support young people doing that work and believe it’s important to fund youth leadership directly through our fellowship and the infrastructure organizations we support.

5. What impact have you seen from funding this work?

The impact of this work has grown and grown. We began granting in this impact area back in 2018, with three-year project grants to 10 organizations, supporting land guardian programs in Indigenous communities, naturalist education groups and youth climate organizers. We narrowed our focus in 2019 to look more directly at youth leadership, launching our inaugural pilot fellowship initiative and funding youth-led ‘infrastructure’ organizations that support the growth of the youth movement. We also supported research on youth leadership through the Centre for Youth Impact.

Through earlier discretionary funding by our 5th Generation members, we helped The Starfish Canada transition from a volunteer-run organization to a full-fledged national charity with more than a dozen staff. We supported the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship in its launch of the Youth Harbour, a platform for pooled philanthropic funding to be re-granted to youth climate organizations, led by young leaders, selected by young leaders. In our fellowship, we selected passionate emerging leaders, hosted training sessions, provided leadership coaching, and offered financial support. We even produced documentary-style film profiles of their work and journeys as leaders.

Over this time, the importance of prioritizing, strengthening, and advocating for youth leadership has only become clearer to us. We’ve disbursed almost $3.5 million to support youth environmental leadership across the country and have watched young leaders and their organizations grow in capacity and reach. The ecosystem supporting young environmental leaders needs to be assessed and analyzed so that we ensure gaps are filled and strengths are spotlighted.

6. What are you most proud of from this work?

We are so proud of the accomplishments of all our grantees and fellowship recipients — from bringing other young people into nature to bringing communities together to building up other youth-led organizations— but the credit is theirs to take. These young leaders are the experts in their causes, and we have been grateful to learn from their experience, knowledge, and advice. As much as we have provided financial support or even helped to coach them, our relationship goes both ways; their openness to sharing their journeys has helped us tremendously.

7. What lessons have you learned from funding young leaders?

We’ve learned that there are so many groups across Canada – ranging from grassroots campaigns to established organizations – that are doing amazing environmental work and are led by young people. The real lesson for us has been trying to figure out what part we should support and how. We started by providing a broad range of grants across the country but then focused more directly on youth leaders and the infrastructure of youth-led organizations. Moving forward, we want to pay particular attention to gaps that need to be filled by better connecting the ecosystem of young leaders, youth-led organizations, youth-serving organizations, and funders. Now that foundations can fund Non-qualified Donees, our sector has a new pathway to provide support for young leaders and their efforts, given that many youth-led enterprises are not registered charities. 

8. What do you wish other funders knew when thinking about funding young leaders in the environmental space?

We wish they would all read the Youth & Innovation Project’s report, Build Power, Share Power, Leverage Power: How foundations can best support youth-led organizations and movements to amplify their impact. This report, produced through the Youth Allyship Academy at Ashoka Canada, with support from the Lawson Foundation, shares the research on how philanthropy is and isn’t currently supporting young leaders in Canada, and how it can support them better. 

Our advice to other funders is to ‘go direct’—take a chance on a young person and youth-led organization, give them the freedom to use their funds to grow their organizations/ideas/initiatives, and watch them amaze you with their accomplishments and innovations. We need to listen to young leaders. We should elevate their voices, fund their advocacy and programming, and make space for them at the decision-making table. They are as critical to solving the challenges we face—globally or down to the community level—as the rest of us. 

9. Did you have concerns about supporting young environmentalists that were unfounded?

Not really. The fellowship initiative was a pilot for us, so we knew going in we wouldn’t know everything and that issues might arise. From the start, we were clear with the young environmentalists that this was a learning opportunity for us, and our priority was to be flexible and responsive to their needs. We made it clear that we weren’t looking for ‘success’ or ‘failure,’ but that our goal was for them to grow as leaders, and we wanted to learn from their journeys. We did that by focusing on developing a direct relationship with them and working with a trusted independent evaluator to produce reports at multiple points during the pilot. These two strategies helped us adapt and pivot along the way. For example, we changed our meeting strategy partway through the year, shifting from fewer, larger group gatherings to more frequent one-on-one meetings with each fellowship recipient. This allowed us to get to know each person better, reduce the reporting burden, and support any challenges they were working through in close to real-time. 

10. Where there any barriers that you had to overcome to support this work?

Our focus was less on our own barriers and more on addressing the barriers youth face themselves. We looked for young people who faced any variety of barriers, from socioeconomic to racial and cultural to geographic, and tried to support those who hadn’t had as many opportunities as others or the same access to resources. Although we have supported a diverse set of individuals and causes, finding and supporting these individuals has proven difficult. We acknowledge we may not be best suited to look for or even support them at a community level, as a nationwide-serving family foundation. So, another key lesson we’ve learned is that there are many doors to open as we aim to work in more inclusive ways. One of those doors is looking for individuals and organizations connected to communities and networks who would benefit from more access. Understanding that we can provide resources to them and build on the strengths of those already connected to marginalized communities can provide that early exposure and access better than we can. 

11. Any final words to share?

Young people are working incredibly hard, with bright and innovative ideas, on causes they are passionate about. They have a deep commitment to social equity, and a profound understanding of the intrinsic value and interdependence of human wellbeing and a healthy environment. And they do this work with fewer resources, visibility, professional connections, and funding than others. If we empower them, we empower ourselves as funders, to address our varied but shared goals to make this world a better place to live, work, and breathe. 

We’d like to call on funders interested in environmental issues to support young leaders who are at the forefront of environmental work. They are the leaders of right now. To draw on the clear recommendations from the Youth & Innovation Project’s research: we need to ensure they have funding. We need to share decision-making power and use our influence as funders to help address the imbalance between young people and others.