Funder FAQ: The Open Society Institute’s Youth Media Program

What is the Youth Initiatives Program?
Youth Initiatives comprise several grantmaking projects that promote critical thinking skills, self-expression, creativity, civic engagement and leadership opportunities for low-income youth, particularly young people of color who are marginalized through poverty or other factors. There’s the Youth Media Program, the Urban Debate Program, the Education Initiative, and the Arts Initiative—all part of the Open Society Institute’s U.S. program. OSI is part of network of foundations created and funded by George Soros, active in more than 50 countries around the world.

When and why did the Youth Initiatives program come into being? Why did you decide to fund film/video?
Originally, Youth Initiatives focused its grantmaking in two priority areas: an arts initiative which increased access to the arts for young people living in undeserved communities; and the Urban Debate Program, which has sought to institutionalize competitive debate as an extracurricular and academic activity in inner-city schools. In 1998, we made a number of exploratory youth media grants, and in 1999 we established the Youth Media Program to specifically fund youth media.

Youth media places young people at the center of public discourse: enriching debate, contributing to the cultural context of issues, and increasing their visibility to adults who oftentimes undervalue their contributions. It also provides inner-city youth with a forum where they can express their views and the concerns that face their community. Our program funds organizations that work with a variety of media (video, radio, newspapers, web sites, television and photography) via supporting model youth media organizations, seeding pilot projects, developing grantee networks at the regional and national level, and raising visibility of youth-generated media.

Your driving philosophy is…?
that participating in debate, the arts, and media production help young people develop their expressive and creative skills in ways that empower and engage them in exploring and testing social boundaries. These activities help them to become engaged citizens and prepare them to play an active part in the making of our democracy.

What percentage of your overall funding goes toward the Youth Media Program?
Currently our annual grantmaking budget is $1.5 million. Our four focus areas are: 1) strategies that generate or expand opportunities for community-based, youth-generated news/media programs as alternative news sources; 2) collaborations at the community, local, and national level that expand the opportunities for young people’s involvement in media and increase the value of young people’s perspectives by building audiences; 3) efforts to protect the First Amendment rights of young people, especially their right to free expression, along with concurrent efforts to educate youth about those rights and responsibilities; 4) documentation, publication and/or dissemination of information about this field that informs those interested in programmatic, evaluative, and impact issues.

We fund the strongest, most innovative programs or projects that fall within our focus areas; there is no set percentage of funding per area, nor is there a quota for the number of grants to organizations working in a particular media (i.e., video, radio, etc.).

You fund organizations rather than individuals, as that seems to be how young filmmakers get their work made. Can you elaborate on this collaborative, yet dependent relationship?
We believe that youth media can be an effective youth development strategy and an alternative to more traditional education models, particularly for youth-at-risk. The work of strong, visionary youth media organizations reaches far beyond training in basic technical and vocational skills.

The energetic and creative staff and mentors at groups such as Video Machete (Chicago) or the Appalachian Media Institute (Kentucky) create a forum where challenging issues and questions can be openly explored through intergenerational dialogue and media analysis. Many of the youth media programs are connecting interested youth to internships and career development opportunities. However, the use of media to explore issues that are impacting their lives, their families, and their communities—such as the juvenile justice system, educational inequality, or police brutality—can and often does inspire many youth to become more engaged in community activism or organizing.

What do you look for in organizations and their programs involving youth and media?
Authentic youth expression must be central to the organization’s mission and work. We are also interested in how the organization uses both the process of the media production and the dissemination of the final product as a tool to affect social change. Strong candidates incorporate youth in all aspects of production and distribution: i.e., when a workshop is complete and a new video is ready for presentation, youth producers will present their work and facilitate panels at community screenings. In New York City, for example, young video artists from various organizations (Global Action Project, the Youth Channel, Downtown Community Television Center, and Educational Video Center) hosted and curated an annual, city-wide youth film festival called Urban Visionaries.

We also look for organizations that have an innovative and energetic staff, as well as a creative curriculum that fosters and nurtures the critical thinking and communication skills of youth participants.

What is the average size of a grant?
Our grants range from about $10,000 to $75,000; however, at this time, the majority of our grants are smaller than $50,000. The size of a grant depends upon a variety of factors, including the scope of the project and the size of the organization. In addition, Youth Media Program grants generally do not cover equipment costs for projects.

Does your focus of who and what you fund change from one year to the next? How is this determined?
As we work to further the mission of our program, we continue to examine the impact of our grantmaking and to refine and revise our strategies. We share conversations (with our grantees, other youth mediamakers, other funders, and various media experts) which help shape our focus areas and inform our long-term program goals and vision.

What has been the ratio of applicants to recipients?
It varies from round to round. In instances when we sent out a mass mailing of Requests for Proposals (RFPs), we received as many as 175 letters of intent, invited 30 full proposals, and awarded between 15-20 grants.

What are the restrictions on applicants’ qualifications (e.g., organizational mission, budget, size, location, etc.)?
The Youth Media Program makes grants to support projects based at non-for-profit organizations or those having a fiscal agent that is a 501(c)(3). We will fund organizations of various sizes and geographic locations with similar missions. The organization must be in healthy financial standing, and the project must be sustainable, based in the U.S., and incorporate people ages 12-21. Because OSI is interested in improving the lives and opportunities of youth with the greatest need, the program targets organizations that work with disadvantaged youth and youth of color.

Are organizational projects funded at specific stages of production? What is the time frame within which the funds must be used?
Our grants generally cover a one-year period. Funding production of specific videos or films is out of our guidelines, other than in exceptional circumstances. For example, in the summer of 1999 we funded eight New York City organizations, two of which were video projects, to produce media products that would explore teenagers’ experiences with death. In 2000, we funded In the Mix, the teen series shown on PBS stations, to extend this work and to produce something for a national audience.

How many organizations’ projects have you funded since your inception? How have those projects typically found their audiences?
Since the program’s inception, we have made 74 grants to 56 different organizations. Most projects found their audiences through collaboration with other like-minded organizations in and beyond the community they inhabit. Of course, the Internet has created greater opportunities for distribution, enabling the audience to be extended through this convergence of all types of media.

What has been the general response of broadcast or exhibition entities to projects of young filmmakers geared toward younger audiences?
There is an increasing interest in young people’s perspectives and there have been a number of new efforts to incorporate youth-produced media into mainstream venues. Film festivals are increasingly incorporating the work of youth videomakers, or bringing them to these venues to learn from the adult masters: the Sundance Film Festival hosts a Gen-Y studio for young people interested in filmmaking.

Explain your funding cycle and deadlines.
At this moment, we are not accepting unsolicited letters of intent or proposals and are only considering renewal requests or invited proposals from group or organizations that can help to develop the infrastructures to support youth media. We anticipate sending out an RFP in the fall.

Who are your Program Officers or Administrators?
Erlin Ibreck, Director of Youth Initiatives Program, (including the Arts Initiative, the Urban Debate Program, and the Youth Media Program); Anna Lefer, Senior Program Associate; and Gladys Lopez, Program Assistant.

How are organizations and their projects evaluated? What is the review process?
Staff review initial inquiries and letters of intent to determine eligibility for submitting a full proposal. Based on this, groups are invited to submit full proposals, which are then evaluated by outside readers who examine organizational and project budgets, samples of the youth-produced work, audited financial statements and staff resumés. During the proposal review stage, staff will conduct a site visit to meet project staff, youth participants, and any additional community stakeholders. The Youth Media staff then prepares a docket of recommended grants that is reviewed by the Director of U.S. Programs, and ultimately by the President of OSI for final approval.

What advice do you have for media organizations in putting forth a strong application?
Have a vision for strengthening and amplifying youth voices. Carefully review the Youth Media program focus areas. Follow the proposal submission guidelines. We encourage applicants to call or email us if they have any questions or concerns about their proposal.

What is the most common mistake applicants make?
Often we receive applications from organizations that are not engaged in youth media as their central activity, and clearly have not read or have ignored the guidelines.

What would people most be surprised to learn about Youth Initiatives and/or its founders?
Although we each have a great deal of experience working with young people in a variety of contexts and settings, none of us had previously worked in the field of media. Our work has successfully transformed us into dedicated youth media fans and advocates.

Other foundations or grantmaking organizations you admire and why.
We admire the individuals behind the organizations: those who are risk-taking, think outside the box, and are willing to challenge even when that means taking on their own organizations or other colleagues.

Famous last words:
“The greatest wealth of this nation is not only the mergers of giant corporations or the possibility of further globalization of the infrastructure of the world. In the United States, our greatest single source of wealth is the minds and talent of our young people. Not to use it is stupid—to waste it is a crime.” — Isaac Stern, musician.

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