Bright Idea: Development Councils Help Youth Build Leadership Skills, Strengthen their Communities

Young people reviewing community plans.

The group of teens strolling through Los Angeles’ Wabash Recreation Center weren’t there to use the new basketball hoops or sit on a freshly painted park bench. Their visit had a more professional purpose—to review the repairs and renovations they had funded as members of a local community development council.

Martha Burzycki has been helping young people award grants that address community needs since 2002. That year, changes to the federal Workforce Investment Act compelled her to create the Cape & Islands Youth Community Development Council to build leadership skills among at-risk youth.

Burzycki, who works at the Hyannis, MA-based Job Training and Employment Corporation, now divides her time between Massachusetts and California–-where she launched a sister council in 2008. Youth participants have awarded nonprofits more than $120,000 to-date. In the process, they’ve shown adults on both coasts just how much they know and care about their communities.

“These young people think about the future more than we think they do,” Burzycki says. “They want to know how they can interact with the world around them and what they can do to make society better.”  

Money Matters

Burzycki runs each council similar to a board of directors, recruiting roughly 12 to 14 participants per cohort. Groups meet about once per month, on average, with some councils consolidating multiple meetings into a weekend retreat.

Participants create a group mission statement and discuss gaps in available services to pick areas they’d like to fund, such as teen suicide prevention and the environment. They then develop a four-page Request for Proposals that Burzycki posts online and distributes by press release, legal notice and direct mail.

Young people review incoming applications and decide which nonprofits should receive funding, which is generally donated by local banks and foundations. Two adults attend each meeting to provide support and facilitate conversations, but they ultimately have no decision-making power.

Says Burzycki: “It’s very empowering for these kids [to make decisions themselves] because nobody’s ever said to them, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘How do you want to spend this large chunk of money?’”

Starting a Youth Community Development Council

We talked to Burzycki about ways that youth-serving agencies can start similar programs in their own communities.       

  • Recruit youth not traditionally asked to serve: Teens facing problems at home and school often know the most about services available—or not available—to them and their peers, Burzycki says. Your agency can meet with local social service providers to help identify potential participants and to help distribute promotional fliers. Incentives may also help, like the $50 Burzycki offers young people if they attend 90 percent of meetings.
     
  • Ensure young people are learning, not just doing: Consider using a facilitators’ guide, like the toolkit Burzycki created to explain topics like grant reviews and proposal writing. Related readings can help teens understand a concept better, she says, but you should also include activities like journaling, group discussions and personal reflection to support a wide range of learning styles.
     
  • Seek funds from local partners: Approach local banks, foundations and corporations to solicit funds and explain how youth councils benefit young people and the broader community. Don’t forget to expand your view of potential advocates, Burzycki adds, to include board members and even national service organizations like the Corporation for National & Community Service.
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