The Business Side of Youth Work

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Continuing with our Is Youth Work Dead series, Jodie Low and Genna Whitlock look at some of the ways they have had to adapt to cope with the cuts in their area and the dilemmas that come therefrom.


Northamptonshire has been through some radical changes in its support for young people over the past decade, losing its Youth Service in 2006 and now a bankrupt County Council it has been stripped back to the bare legal minimum services; the consequences of this will be realised into the next decade and beyond. As an organisation that’s been running for 10 years in these turbulent times, we wanted to communicate through IDYW the survival strategies we have learnt to maintain open access youth work in disadvantaged estates:

  1. Diversify the forms of income. Putting your eggs in one basket has always been a risky strategy and making sure we balance income through consumers, contracts, donors and grants means we can ride the endings and beginnings of pots of money. Be clear on what each type of fund is most usefully spent on.
  2. Prioritise CASHFLOW! Any business knows this is key to survival but it takes skill and courage to get it right for an organisation.
  3. Understand your core costs and don’t underestimate these. We are always re-analysing where time is spent and as the organisation has grown or adapted these have changed.
  4. Have a supportive governance board. Whatever form this comes in, utilise the skills your governors provide. Listen and act… or don’t act on their critique! Their perspective is food for reflection when leading an organisation can be a lonely place.
  5. Have a strong understanding of your organisation’s aims and objectives. Use them to assess opportunities this will help to avoid mission drift.
  6. Relationships hold everything together. Whether this is your internal team or with partners or stakeholders. Know the allies and sharks to your journey and build respectful and considered relationships regardless.
  7. Talk to family and friends about work and its challenges. Working for or leading a youth work organisation will mean anti-social hours to meet young people where they are at. This can take its toll on your personal life.
  8. Develop strong processes for your fundraising. Be clear on the outcomes and outputs promised; set reporting for these from the outset. Have an overview of your funders requirements from marketing to evaluation.
  9. Develop a process of evaluation for grant or tender applications. Have more than one person involved in the process so that you can be critical on your submissions. Read all guidance and read the questions thoroughly to decipher what they are asking for. Don’t duplicate information to maximise the word counts and wherever possible talk to the funding body to understand what they are looking to fund.
  10. Source reliable HR, Finance and Health and Safety advice. This could make or break your organisation should an issue occur.

The most fundamental reflection for me is that the top tips above could be relevant to any profit-making SME. The capitalist, neoliberal landscape of public services has never been so disturbing. Our decision making is often torn between business survival instincts and our principles and values.  Although as a small organisation we are finally delivering with a freedom to be agile and deliver Youth and Community Work without the shadow of a Local Authority we are also laid bare to business priorities. Nevertheless, the silver lining is starting to glimmer. In Northampton we are now having conversations about the importance of Youth and Community Development; with a sound understanding of what that means. There is a huge challenge in trying to get back to a quality universal, democratic Youth Service but our first steps have been taken.

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