Lessons from the Listening Fund (Part 1): Enablers for Listening

Over the past two years, the Centre for Youth Impact has been working with the funders and youth organisations involved in the Listening Fund, a collaborative effort to support organisations to listen and respond to young people – and make this the norm. The Centre is evaluating both the England and Scotland Fund, and this week is reporting on the findings from England. This blog by Sarah Williams and Jo Hickman Dunne, who are part of the Centre for Youth Impact’s research team, explores key enablers for meaningful listening practice based on the evaluation findings.

This is part of a series of blogs exploring the findings from the project. The rest of the series will appear here.

Prior to the Listening Fund, we knew that there was already a huge amount of interest and expertise in amplifying and advocating for youth voice across the sector. This includes a whole range of aims and activities. Within this, the Listening Fund is focused on ‘attentively listening’ to young people, and responding to what they say. A key piece of learning from the Fund is that, to ‘do listening well’ – in a manner that is driven by young people and leads to tangible action – requires dedicated time and investment. This is something that is often underestimated, and therefore, a lack of proper resource can lead to tokenistic involvement, where young people are briefly consulted on an issue but adults maintain control over decision-making. Below, we identify six further ‘key enablers’ for overcoming this situation and achieving meaningful listening practice.

1. Provide dedicated spaces or structures for young people to voice their opinions and views alongside broader organisational approaches

A number of the organisations that received grants from the Listening Fund (referred to as ‘partners’) have adopted the approach of creating youth-led structures or ‘spaces’, including youth forums, a youth advisory group, or recruiting young ambassadors. The findings suggest that doing so is key to ensure that young people’s voices are captured in a systematic and purposeful ingrained way within an organisation. Additionally, these spaces can give young people the confidence – through building relationships with peers and feeling that their concerns were valued – to both raise issues and to act upon them.

Usually, these structures operate alongside more ad hoc, cultural approaches to listening that are embedded in day-to-day practice, such as open conversations with young people about their thoughts and feelings. Both the dedicated and the ad hoc spaces matter, and work best in tandem.

2. Identify particular staff to drive listening practice

A dedicated staff member is key to the listening and responding well. Firstly, this is so there is a dedicated lead in making listening activities happen, and secondly, to build motivation and buy-in to the concept across the whole team or organisation. Some partners used the Fund to create and recruit for a specific role, such as Co-Production or Participation Lead, to lead listening across their organisation. In line with this, the proportion of partners who had a member of staff or volunteer with ‘listening’ included in their job description was high, at 72% at the start of the fund and 95% by the end.

Many practitioners found that, throughout the Fund, they have been on a journey to learn to appreciate and trust that young people are experts in their own circumstances and that most are willing and capable to discuss and come up with ideas to improve the services that are there to support them. This involves a shift in power dynamics that does not necessarily come easy, and so having a staff member to drive this process and remind all of the role and importance of listening is highly beneficial.

3. Don’t expect young people to speak up and be heard externally without support

Creating a safe and supportive environment is a prerequisite for enabling listening activities to be effective in practice. For example, as part of their projects some partners asked young people to speak and share their views externally, such as one partner that supported young people to speak with local council representatives to lobby for change to the terminology it uses towards young people who are or who have been in care. Many of the partners have pointed out that this can be an intimidating experience for young people, and have expressed that they “should not be put on the spot” when sharing their views, but given appropriate support so they could make effective use of the platform they are given. This involves staff helping them to think about the key messages they want to get across and how to structure their arguments.

4. Make listening activities worthwhile and enjoyable, to motivate young people to take part

Young people usually engage with organisations in the first instance as somewhere to go for support, have fun, and spend time with peers. Against this context, it was important to partners that young people “are not weighed down with always being asked to give some kind of feedback”. In other words, it is important that listening activities do not detract from young people’s original motivations for engaging with provision, but instead supplement and enhance the experience.

Part of overcoming this challenge involves striking the right balance in the regularity of ‘formal’ listening, such as deciding how often to hold a youth board meeting or to release a survey. It must be frequent enough so that young people’s voices can be heard on an ongoing basis, but not so frequent that young people feel overwhelmed or fatigued.

5. Engage with and listen to young people’s families and wider networks

Listening to young people can also involve listening to their families, carers and wider networks, in order to obtain a more holistic understanding of their situation and life experience. This is especially important for young people with high-level and complex needs, and for young people who face challenges expressing themselves. These links can be established in various ways, including informal conversations, holding collaborative events, and interacting over email.

Importantly, some partners found that doing so gave them more confidence in their ability to engage young people as it allowed them to get a new perspective on their situation. However, securing resource for this aspect of the work can be challenging, as it is further removed from direct service delivery.

6. Conduct analysis and outreach to make sure listening is representative and accessible

It is important that listening is representative: that is to say, the types of young people that engage in listening activity are the same types of young people who engage more broadly in the organisation’s work, and no one’s voice is excluded or silenced. Organisations must make a conscious effort to make listening activities inclusive, particularly to include the voices of those who are typically the least heard. As such, it is necessary to continually ask who’s being empowered to speak up, whose voices are being heard, and whose are missing.

Engaging young people for the first time in listening was considered to be particularly challenging, especially with higher commitment activities, such as a youth board. Many partners found initial engagement to be the biggest challenge, as once young people got involved, they began to see the value in taking part. Some therefore found it beneficial to ask existing young people to act as ‘ambassadors’, to encourage others to participate, or to collect and represent their views.

More detail about the evaluation findings can be found in the full learning report, and in the accompanying case study report that takes an in-depth look at six partners’ projects.

Young woman with pink hair looking excited and happy