December 5, 2011 | last updated June 4, 2012 11:23 am

The Power of Youth | Founder of Free the Children urges nonprofits to court youth

Ron Cretaro, left, from the CT Association of Non-Profits talks with Craig Kielburger at the associationís annual conference recently.

When Craig Kielburger speaks about youth empowerment, he speaks as much from experience as he does from the heart. In part, it's because over the past 16 years, he has seen his organization — Free the Children — grow to become one of the largest networks of children helping children in the world.

In part, it's because Kielburger knows firsthand the difference that one child can make, having founded Free the Children at age 12 to help free children from poverty, exploitation and abuse after reading an article about the life and death of a child slave.

Founding a non-profit organization was Kielburger's last resort, after encountering countless rejections as a child from human rights organizations that saw no use for child volunteers. "One organization's response," Keilburger recalled, "was 'do you know where your parents' credit card is'?"

Today, Free the Children is a testament to Kielburger's resolve and the power of children and adolescents, a demographic of donors and volunteers often overlooked by many nonprofits. Free the Children boasts a network of more than 1 million youth across 45 countries.

"We challenge the notion that young people are powerless to affect positive change," Kielburger says. It's a message he shares frequently with nonprofits, including his keynote address at the Connecticut Association of Non-Profits annual conference in November.

"Students across North America are looking for a way to make a difference," he explains, "and they have a hard time finding nonprofits seeking young volunteers."

While many nonprofits don't actively recruit student volunteers, Kielburger has made it a primary focus of his organization. In fact, Free the Children has an entire department dedicated entirely to mentoring and empowering youth. And that focus is paying tangible dividends: children across the globe have volunteered more than 1 million hours for the organization and raised more than $5.4 million, which, in part, has helped build more than 650 schools in developing countries.

One key to nonprofits attracting youth and building a sustainable organization, Kielburger says, is innovation. He points to Free the Children's social enterprise model, Me to We, that sells products — including clothes, books and music — created by artisans from developing countries. Half the proceeds benefit Free the Children and half is reinvested.

Kielburger thinks an enterprise model would serve many Connecticut nonprofits well by raising awareness of community issues, while offsetting administrative costs and engaging youth, who are increasingly socially conscious consumers.

Kielburger also sees social media as critically important in outreaching to young people. "It helps us share exciting news from overseas projects and raising awareness of local opportunities to get engaged," he noted. Kielburger, for instance, frequently tweets and shares organizational information and videos on YouTube and Facebook, where his organization has amassed nearly 800,000 "likes," mostly from young people.

"Our organization showcases the ability of young people to change the world," Kielburger says. For more than 16 years, Kielburger has tried to harness that power to create a better world through education, clean water and sanitation projects and health care programs.

He's seen the impact in towns and villages in developing nations his organization serves, where more than one million people are living healthier lives because a 12-year-old boy decided to make a difference and inspired other children to play a role. Kielburger, himself a prime example, leaves nonprofits in Connecticut and nationwide with the biggest lesson he's learned: never underestimate the power of young people.


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