What is Youth Participation?*

Youth participation is the meaningful and active engagement of youth in all aspects and levels of an organisation or network, which includes decision-making processes. Youth? There are many definitions of youth and young people, and there is significant variation in the ages by which organisations define people as “youth.” In this toolkit we consider youth to be 30 years or younger. Meaningful? Meaningful means that youth contributions are supporting the goals of the organisation and that youth are recognised as important actors, colleagues, stakeholders and partners. Meaningful participation also necessitates that investments are made to support opportunities for young people, including opportunities for skill development and personal growth. Meaningful participation also implies that youth are able to influence decisions and the strategic vision of the organisation through their active engagement at decision-making levels. Youth participation requires that young people have the right, space, means, and opportunity to safely participate without fear of judgement, discrimination or harassment.

*This is a non-exhaustive definition and the requirements and different approaches to youth participation will be expanded on throughout the toolkit.

So you want youth to be a part of your work…Why?

The first question to ask yourself is why you want to engage young people. Is it because

  • your funder is interested in seeing more youth participation;
  • or because you think they will add value;
  • or because you think it will help further your mission;
  • or because you think it would be a good opportunity for young people?

It is important to understand your motivation in engaging young people and question the assumptions implicit in that motivation.

If your motivation is based on funding, or achieving your mission and vision, or promotional objectives take some time to reflect on the value of young people. It is very important that before you create a goal to engage more young people, your organisation or network has the capacity to do so. This means having an organisational culture that values youth and respects their contributions. If you do not do this essential pre-work, you will end up working hard to engage youth and they might show up for a meeting or an event, but they will not stick around if they don’t feel useful, wanted and respected. Can you blame them?

Dos and Don’ts

Here are some quick reminders that will hopefully serve as a helpful tool to share and promote a healthy and inclusive culture in your organisation.


Engage youth at all levels – youth do not just want to be volunteers. To show your organisation respects and values youth make them a part of all your processes at all levels from the board, to staff, to volunteers, to committees. Recognize the added value of the participation of youth at all levels.

Ask youth about their preferences – the best way to find out what young people need or want from participating with your organisation or network is to ask them. Engage in open and transparent communication with young people to make sure you are meeting their needs and promoting participation.

Encourage networking and peer to peer learning – The opportunity for youth to network with other organizations, movements, individual activists, and youth allows them to co-create knowledge with their peers, as well identify opportunities for resourcing and capacity development. Organizations should also engage in peer learning with each other in order to scale-up youth engagement efforts through CSO best practices and lessons learned.

Engage a diversity of youth – as much as possible engage a broad cross-section of young people. Young people from different backgrounds, different socioeconomic classes, different regions, different sexual orientations, different genders, rural and urban youth etc… Ask yourself what you can do to engage a broader group of young people. What barriers are in place that may prevent certain young people from engaging?

Be mindful of barriers – always think about barriers that young people might face to participation. For instance, is your event during the day, might youth be in school, are you offering public transportation reimbursements to those that attend events? Does your work utilize inaccessible language such as jargon, heavily academic language, or technical terminology? Do you require unrealistic qualifications of potential youth such as diplomas or formal education? Better yet, ask young people what they need and what potential barriers might exist to help you meet youth where they are at.

Give young people the space to try and to fail – recognizing that failing is human and that in order for youth to be given the space to succeed and have ownership over an initiative, they must also be given the chance to fail.


Tokenize youth – avoid including “token” youth in your work. Youth will likely feel tokenized if they are constantly being asked to represent all youth, if they are only being included when it is convenient for you, or if they are being asked to give input on only certain subjects. Engage as many youth as possible in every opportunity to avoid this.

Make Assumptions – do not make assumptions about what youth are interested in, or what they want. Just because a young person on television or your child is interested in a particular topic or likes to engage in particular ways, does not mean that every young person feels the same way.

Make generalisations – not all young people have the same experiences, interests or views. Avoid making generalisations that will minimize young people’s experiences. Respect the individuals that are participating in your work and show an interest in getting to know them as individuals.

Be patronizing – it is important to recognize, value and respect the unique position of young people. This means not making comments like “when you’re older you’ll understand” or assuming they are less experienced, knowledgeable or capable due to their age. Even behaviour that is intended to be empowering can be very patronizing. Before you say or do something, ask yourself if you would act the same way if that person was your age or older.

Treat youth as beneficiaries – young people are not simply beneficiaries of your work or programming but should rather be treated as key stakeholders in the development, implementation, and monitoring of activities directed towards them.

Overload youth with work – remember young people have a variety of competing commitments and priorities in their lives and should recognizing that is essential to showing that you value and respect young people and their time.