How to Improve Youth Civic Engagement Through Mini-Grant Programs

By Eric Johnson, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Youth may often be overlooked as important stakeholders in issues affecting their community, yet they can play a key role in addressing those negative issues and working towards a solution.  Through the establishment of mini-grant programs created to fund youth driven community action, young people can create change in their community, and see immediate results that also benefit their community in the long run.  Foster-Fishman et al. (2006) describe the use of a mini-grant program throughout several communities within the city of Battle Creek, Michigan that worked to encourage greater resident participation in community capacity building activities.  The goal of the program was to address racial gaps in level of education and socio-economic status present throughout the city by establishing mini-grant programs in communities found to be at the lower end of the cities average education and income.  The mini-grant programs allowed residents to apply for immediate funding of events that would enable them to take immediate action to address a specific and manageable community issue, in the hopes that this would lay the foundation for larger community efforts later on (Foster-Fishman et al., 2006).

After some changes in the initial strategies, the program described by Foster-Fishman et al. (2006) enabled positive changes in the community, and residents were improving in their capacity to achieve bigger goals.  However while the program attempted to encourage youth-driven community projects, participation from the young people within the community proved difficult, and stayed lower than program directors had expected.  Engaging youth in a mini-grant program may require different support and strategies than when involving adult community members, but could be just as effective when implemented successfully.

Accessible adult mentors or program directors to aid with the development of youth planned community service events or projectsare necessary to supportyouth in accessing funds and resources, and in executing plans.  This direct oversight and guidance enables teens to improve their own capacity to create change to address issues that affect them, and learn to take more active roles in promoting positive developmentin their community.Another strategy to encourage youth participation in community betterment projects is to identify potential youth leaders or youth recruiters who would be able to generate interest about the project amongst peers at school and elsewhere.  Potential youth leaders or recruiters could be teens already engaged in community development projects, or those knowledgeable about certain community issues.  These identified youth community members may then work closely with adult program directors, and receive training and support in organizing community projects, knowledge they can pass on to other youth through recruiting their participation.  This may work best when combined with an existing youth development organization in the community, as staff at these organizations may have established relationships with and knowledge about the youth in their community, and could help identify and recruit potential youth leaders for a community project.  In addition, staff at a local youth organization could serve as adult mentors or program supervisors and work directly with the youth to apply for funding and develop community projects.

One example of an existing youth program similar to the mini-grant programs described above is the Keystone program for teens at Boys & Girls Clubs across America.  This program works to improve youth leadership and character development through encouraging and supporting the development of youth-organized community service and civic engagement projects.  While the youth involved in this program do not directly apply for funding, the Keystone program itself is funded through grants that support the efforts of participating teen club members.  The Keystone program also has an adult program supervisor, who works to oversee and support the youth members in identifying addressing community issues, and taking a more active role in their community.  The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell, for example, runs the Keystone program with their older teen club members, and encourages the development of character and crucial leadership skills to better equip them to achieve a successful future.  In the past year, Keystone members have tutored younger Boys & Girls Club members, and served as volunteers for large community building events including the Lowell Folk Festival and Winterfest.  Opening greater opportunities for teens to apply for mini-grants through programs like Keystone could equip and encourage the youth to take a more active role in addressing community issues affecting them.

Learn more about the Keystone program, and read more about the program aims and goals here:

Also, check out the website for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell, to read about Boys & Girls Clubs programs like Keystone in action:


Eric Johnson is a graduate student in Community Social Psychology Department at the University of Georgia.



Foster-Fishman, P., Fitzgerald, K., Brandell, C., Nowell, B., Chavis, D., &Egeren, L. (2006).  Mobilizing Residents for Action: The Role of Small Wins and Strategic Supports. American Journal of Community Psychology, (38), 143-152.