Did you know that young people can contribute to decision-making at the highest levels of the biggest charities around the world? For the past 18 months, Kenyan volunteer Felix Owino and British volunteer Takyiwa Danso have been finding out what life is like as Youth Advisers on the board of VSO, the international development charity that leads the ICS programme.
Don’t know what a board of trustees is? Don’t worry.
Every charity has a group of people who take overall responsibility for its work.
They’re often called trustees, have lots of experience, and are known collectively as a 'board'. It’s their job to ensure that the charity is being run properly. It’s a formal role that comes with legal responsibilities – and while Felix and Takyiwa aren’t accountable in the same way, their advisory role is still just as important.
This month, read their diary to find out how their experience on the board has helped shape their career and study plans, as well as given them an understanding of how decisions are made at the top of the biggest charities.
November 2017. Our first board meeting.
Lots of reading of board papers, getting to grips with how VSO is governed, and finding out how the board make decisions.
Takyiwa: “Meeting the International Board of Trustees - and each other - for the first time was a daunting but exciting experience, made much easier by the Christmas cheer! We jumped straight into a discussion over dinner about how to keep volunteers engaged in the long-term – and in turn, shared our own personal experiences of volunteering with ICS in Kenya.”
Felix: “I couldn’t wait to meet Takyiwa. It turned out that we had a lot in common. We’d been volunteering at exactly the same time, in the same country - but in different communities. We’d also attended a big youth event in London in 2015. Small world! We were confident that joining the board was a big step forward in making sure a diverse range of opinions were heard that would shape VSO’s senior decision making. We were excited to begin.”
December 2017. Presenting at VSO’s annual Volunteer Awards in London.
Representing VSO's youth programming by celebrating the global work of ICS.
Felix: “Just a few days after the board meeting, it was VSO’s big awards night celebrating volunteers around the world. I remotely presented the award to Ghanaian ICS volunteer Emmanuel Opare. Unfortunately, he couldn’t join in person, but we heard about how through his two volunteering placements, he’s been a vocal campaigner on the importance of education. And he hasn’t stopped since he returned – he recently delivered 1,000 books to a school in his placement town of Asamankese.”
Takyiwa: “And I presented a joint award – to UK ICS volunteers Shay and Patsy. On their placement in Nanyuki, Kenya, they worked with a charity helping girls attend school while on their period. Patsy built a website for the charity that enabled them to take foreign donations, while Shay set up a workshop for the production of sanitary towels. Since they’ve returned, they’ve managed to raise over £500 – enough to keep 60 girls in school for two years."
February 2018. Speaking to other youth trustees.
Learning how other young people in the UK interact with charities and their experience of contributing as a diverse voice.
Takyiwa: “In England and Wales, 12% of the adult population are aged 18-24 – but they represent less than 1% of trustees. For any charity to call themselves youth-focused, young people need to be truly involved.
“I wanted to find out more about this 1%.
“Two conversations stood out to me. One was with Anthony Ford-Shubrook, previous Chair of child disability charity AbleChildAfrica’s Youth Council, who told me that ‘just being a young person in the room is a powerful statement’.
“The other was with Larissa Kennedy, trustee for the British Youth Council: ‘As a sector, I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re recognising that true youth engagement requires investment, energy and capacity building’.”
March 2018. Bumping into Justine Greening on International Women’s Day!
Speaking with the previous International Development Secretary about why intersectionality matters!
Takyiwa: “Every year I go to the Women of the World Festival in London. Last year I bumped into Justine Greening MP – we had a quick chat about my experience as a UK Youth Delegate at the 2016 United Nations General Assembly (the big annual meeting of all 193 world leaders).
“I really admire her because she champions raising the voices of underrepresented groups – whether that’s women, youth or those from the LGBTQ+ community. On the right is Jude Kelly, founder of WOW, who has worked to make sure the annual event highlights issues around intersectionality – the principle that people’s different life experiences overlap."
April 2018. Is the Commonwealth still needed?
Connecting with young people from around the world to understand their views on being united by the Commonwealth.
Felix: “While I was in London, I got the chance to go to the Commonwealth Youth Forum. More than a quarter of the world’s countries belong to the Commonwealth. It’s a contentious community that serves as a strong reminder of Britain’s colonial past – but I wanted to find out what the young people at the conference thought about it.
“Talisa, from Trinidad and Tobago, told me that she doesn’t want youth to play a tokenistic role in politics. ‘I hope government leaders continue to think about youth and realise how important we are. More needs to be done than simply giving young people a voice – they need to follow this up with real actions’.
“After the conference I'd submitted a report to the board of trustees, which they really liked - and I was proud that this was slotted in for discussion as part of the agenda in the following meeting. To me, anything that's added into the agenda has the potential to influence policy from the top!”
June 2018. Catching up with VSO’s first EVER youth trustee, Steve.
Learning about how VSO has involved young people in decision making for over 40 years - and why the board needs to hear the voice of the volunteer.
Takyiwa: “I met the lovely Steve Boley – who was VSO’s first ever youth trustee way back in 1977. We caught up to film our conversation about our experiences as the young people in a room full of top decision-makers. I discovered that he was invited to join VSO’s board because of his volunteering – his experiences gave him invaluable skills and knowledge that set him apart from others.”
July 2018. Celebrating VSO’s 60th birthday.
Joining up with VSO supporters to hear their stories about what it is about volunteering that's kept them engaged.
Felix: “Last year VSO turned 60. In that time it’s worked to improve the lives of millions of people all around the world. I was really lucky to visit the reception in the River Room at the House of Lords at the UK Parliament. In the photo with me are Stephen Pidgeon (left), fellow VSO trustee and former volunteer in Papua New Guinea, and VSO volunteer Jane Clayton-Jones.”
August 2018. Joining alumni for International Youth Day.
Meeting national networks of ICS alumni to celebrate nine years of impact and bring their questions to the board.
Takyiwa: “For us at ICS, this is the biggest day in the calendar. It’s a moment where all volunteers around the world can come together to celebrate the difference we’re making. I spent the day in Birmingham meeting really interesting people and participating in sessions on effective activism.”
Felix: “Yeah, youth day is really fun. I spent my day in Nakuru, one of the communities where I volunteered as a team leader. I was working with Takyiwa remotely to record videos of young people asking one question to the people on the board of VSO. We got a whole range of different questions, and I’ll be showing these videos to the board later this year and recording their responses!”
September 2018. Returning to my ICS placement town!
Bringing back to the board on-the-ground knowledge about how much ICS programmes and youth engagement has changed in three years.
Takyiwa: “With my full-time job (external to VSO), I often visit Kenya a couple of times a year to monitor our inclusive sports project for children with disabilities. During my September trip, I decided to go back Machakos, the town where I was on placement for three months way back in 2015.
“Whilst there, I found out how one of ICS’ longest-running programmes is still doing great work, and even got a chance to visit my host family! In the picture above you can see the current ICS team leaders as well as the Machakos Youth Taskforce team - a group of young volunteers who are lobbying their local government for increased employment opportunities for young people.”
October 2018. Flying to Nepal to see VSO’s programming first hand.
Getting to grips with how VSO's gender empowerment programmes work so board decisions can be influenced by the voices of local people.
Felix: “This was awesome. It was my first time to Asia and I was excited about visiting Nepal, a country that VSO has worked in for over 50 years. The time to witness a VSO project outside my home country had come. Seeing the Sisters for Sisters’ project – a campaign getting vulnerable girls into education and keeping them there – was a real privilege.”
Takyiwa: “And it was my first time to Asia too! The trip, although just a few days, really helped me get to grips with the impact of VSO programmes. It’s important to see this first-hand, because talking in a boardroom about a project is vastly different from seeing the project and hearing from the people themselves on how their lives have changed. And trying momos, Nepalese dumplings, for the first time was a highlight too!
November 2018. It’s already been a year since our first board meeting!
Reflecting on how far we've come in a year, how much we've learnt about governance, and how mentorship has helped our personal development.
Felix: “I can’t believe it. So much has changed in a year – I’m now back in education, studying project planning and management while I work informally with youth based organisations within Nairobi. I’ve noticed a big difference in my confidence and personal development through the support of VSO staff and my personal mentor, Charles Abani. He’s the guy at the back of the picture. He’s great and has over 30 years’ sector experience.
“For the past year, he’s been supporting me to ensure that our roles as Youth Advisers are meaningful, and he’s offered support to build my personal, professional and leadership capabilities and advance my active citizenship.”
Takyiwa: “My mentor Hardeep has been a board member for almost six years, and was the youngest on the board, until I knocked her off that spot! It means that she’s able to understand things from our perspective.
“I’ve learnt a lot from her, including how to ask critical questions and summarise key information from large documents (board papers are SO long!). She’s helped boost my confidence as sharing my opinion around a table of experts was one of the hardest things I’ve found while being on the board.
"One of my proudest achievements has been working on a youth position paper for VSO. I worked closely with Felix providing feedback on a strategy that had been produced about how the organisation would interact with young people - and starting to ask questions from a governance point of view. It was good to start to see the influence of this way of thinking!"
December 2018. Back at VSO’s Volunteer Awards!
Co-presenting with ICS alumni as they take the global limelight for the night, showing the power of young people in development.
Takyiwa: “In this pic, I’m stood next to my friend Mary, who was co-chairing the awards. She’s doing some awesome work around creating a network for young aspirational women in London – and is a perfect example of the kind of volunteers VSO was celebrating on the night.
“I presented the award to Francis Kandeh, for his work improving disaster risk reduction awareness in rural communities in Sierra Leone. I felt very privileged to be asked to present again, especially in front of Princess Anne!”
January 2019. Meeting the crowdfunders of my menstrual health project in Kenya.
A reminder that behind every project or charity is a passionate group of supporters whose work needs to be celebrated.
Felix: “As it's January, I’m reflecting! Together with my former ICS team leader counterpart, we’ve been running a menstrual health project for three years.
“In 2018, this translated to training 759 Maasai girls in menstrual health, and distributing 368 ‘Femme kits’, which include a small towel, a bar of soap and a menstrual cup that lasts for over 10 years. Whenever I return to London, I meet the small group who have helped crowdfund the project and engage more than 200 supporters from around the world.”
March 2019. Takyiwa’s final board meeting!
Stepping down and reflecting on the impact of our youth voice on the board of trustees' decisions - and how it's changed influenced our career paths.
Takyiwa: “Last month was my final board meeting as I decided to step down from my role as Youth Adviser. I’ve really valued my time learning about the success and challenges of governing a large, global NGO.
“Meeting teams and volunteers from around the world has widened my understanding of volunteer and community-led programming. I’ve been able to contribute towards a big piece of work at VSO about how we involve youth.
“And it’s even helped initiate conversations about youth governance in my own office. One of the key lessons I’ve learnt from my mentor was time management. Balancing this role alongside my full-time job was hard and required me to make tough decisions. Although I won’t be on the board, I’ll continue to promote the important contributions of young people in decision making spaces.”
Felix: “I’m staying on the board for a few more months. Working with Takyiwa has been one of the most amazing periods of my life. As she leaves and my role changes, I’m as determined as ever to make sure that our role as on the board is meaningful and we’re truly able to represent young people.”