What one year as President of JEF Maastricht taught me

I had the trust and honour of being the President of JEF Maastricht, a local chapter of a European youth NGO focusing on the promotion of European citizenship and participation of young people in European politics. I learned a lot of things during my year in which I presided the association. 9 of my learning experiences are written down here, and I hope that they can be of use for enthusiastic minds who are about to embark on their own journey within JEF or another youth organisation.

But pay attention! Youth NGO ≠ Youth NGO. It’s important to note that this article and the suggestions given in here mainly apply to democratic youth organisations with the following characteristics:

  • Members come from many places & are new in the area
  • Members don’t know each other for long
  • The association’s governance cycles are short
  • Members are mostly 18-22 years old

A lot of youth organisations work completely differently and have different membership bases, organisational structures, or activation potentials. So, take care that you don’t suddenly take these conclusions for the golden formula for your local scouts group’s success! (Although, with a very low probability, it might be)

1) Your members’ talents may be hidden, but they’re real

There are talents which need to be embraced, talents which you can see shimmering in people’s activities, but which they maybe won’t develop without you. Be proactive in encouraging and asking your members to do something they will probably be good at! Youth organisations can provide a perfect framework for young people to practice these talents and find out what their strengths and weaknesses are.

2) Don’t oversell yourself to others, but reach for the sky yourself

Working on a project with partners for the first time and saying that you’re sure you’ll get the Prime Minister to give a speech at your joint workshop? Bad idea. (unless e.g. the Prime Minister by chance is your uncle and you know he really loves to gives speeches at workshops by your youth NGO!) But e-mailing the Prime Minister to ask whether he’d like to give a speech at your workshop when you’re planning your own project? Go for it.

3) Inclusion also has the dimension of social comfortableness

Some people might just be in for relaxing and chitchatting with friends. Some others are there to fight for your cause 24/7. Others come to learn and get inspired. Offer something for all of them. This is what a lot of associations in the environment of higher education fail in. Drop-outs from fraternities and commitment-scared “keep me posted” are telling.

4) There is a great range of experiences your members potentially do or don’t have

The difference and diversity in these qualifications and skills can be immense – some might be trained youth leaders who went to weeks of trainings and workshops and others are new to the whole field of youth NGOs. Most likely, none of you will be aware of that. Identify your potentials and allow yourselves to learn from each other on the go!

5) The design of content on the internet is an underestimated field

And organisations are usually terribly bad at it. Web design as well as content & strategy design for media platforms are here to stay, and they will require more than one “Social Media Officer” to be taken care of properly.

6) For a plenitude of people, learning new skills is one of the most valuable and empowering experiences

Trainings and skills trainings are incredibly rewarding for those who dare to participate in them, and there’s a lot of things which even you can teach without being an official expert. Some things which might seem the most obvious ever to you aren’t for others.

7) A young age doesn’t make a young person

You might have members whose hearts are burning for the rights of children as well as members who feel like they’ve never been younger than 40 and for whom being a teenager seems centuries away.

8) Make tasks up as you go

Keep your members busy and don’t wait for them to bring their projects forward (but of course also don’t keep the door for that shut).

9) A flat team hierarchy doesn’t favour everyone

Having an at least somewhat clear role-division and a clear distribution of leadership helps making your team members and volunteers more secure, self-conscious and gives helpful directions for their work and development.