John Wong on How to Engage Youth for A More Vibrant and Sustainable Future Post COVID

How can we move forward in a post pandemic future? How can organizations strive to do better and engage tomorrow’s leaders in the process? 

These are questions John Wong and I discuss in today’s podcast. Understanding how today’s youth sees the future is an important step towards sustainability. It is  important to avoid using young people as a token and strive to genuinely do better by giving them an equal seat at the table. 

Most importantly, generations will need to learn how to communicate with each other and create a collaborative environment. As leaders of organizations, it's key to track and strengthen your engagement levels to ensure that you are empowering your supporters to drive your mission. A powerful donor management tool can provide you with the tools you need to effectively understand and communicate with your most important resource, your people.

John Wong and his team at Brilliant Labs are doing a great job at inspiring the leaders of tomorrow to build their resilience and work towards their passions. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know that it needs to be better than yesterday. 

Official Transcript:

Sabrina: Hello and welcome to Fundraising Superheroes, a nonprofit podcast dedicated to celebrating the industry and all the people who work to make the world a better place. As always this podcast is brought to you by the Donor Engine. Our software allows you to track your organization's actions in order to monitor your success. We are more than just a donor CRM, we want to help you reach your full potential by saving hours of time managing your information.
In the past few months the world has changed drastically. As we continue to learn from this experience it’s becoming clearer that we are going to have to do more than just adjust to a new way of doing things.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a direct light on the challenges facing all of our essential systems from healthcare and social security to our use of technologies and the way we do business… and, as trying as it has been for everyone, we see it as an opportunity allowing us a moment to pause and reflect on what matters most in our lives and in the world.
Clearly, today’s problems need more than yesterday’s solutions ─ we need bold new thinking to help address the social gaps and inequalities laid bare by the pandemic.
Specifically, more than ever, charities and not-for-profits are being forced to think outside the box and create new and effective ways to advance their mission, There is no time better than right now to start challenging the ways we’ve approached things… and to engage our youth in the process to help build strong and vibrant communities.
As recently witnessed in last month’s Together|Ensemble 2020 virtual conference: Canada’s national conference devoted to tracking progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – UN SDGs, as we begin planning for post-pandemic recovery, we also have a huge opportunity to engage youth to inform how we can "build back better”… and for youth to have a seat at the decision-making table to help build strong and vibrant communities.
For today’s podcast, Donor Engine has invited John Wong, Director of Community & Fund Development at Brilliant Labs: an Atlantic Canadian-based learning platform igniting students’ creativity and innovation in their classrooms and communities, using today’s technology and a social, entrepreneurial mindset.
Thank you so much John for being on the show!

John: You’re welcome, thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this.  

Sabrina: So how have you seen the industry change and adapt to the current situation in the last few months and how has Brilliant Labs had to change and adapt to it as well? 

John: That’s something that we’re constantly talking about. I guess with the COVID-19 pandemic having reinforced a lot of the gabs and inequities in society, we’re witnessing a refocusing on addressing these issues in our essential systems ranging from healthcare to food security, and access to digital technology. 

Here in New Brunswick, 50% of the population lives in rural communities and it’s really coming forward that these communities are at a real disadvantage for not having internet for instance. So this has only reinforced that, so with school closing and then classrooms going online how are you serving kids living in rural communities who don’t have access to the internet? 

In terms of how Brilliant Labs is handling it, I got to tell you we had to learn pretty quickly how to adapt and develop new ways to continue meeting students in their schools and communities to deliver our creative learning programs virtually. So since everything has gone code red in March that’s what we’ve been focusing on, moving everything online. 

Sabrina: How was that transition for you? Did it take a lot to make online assets for your programs or do you feel it’s something that happened organically? 

John: It was a combination of both I’d have to say, already we had prepared content which we would then deliver in person in classrooms or communities. Online is a whole different platform so there was a lot of tweaking, redeveloping, creating new more appropriate content for online  coming from what we have been doing and adding to that if that makes sense. 

Sabrina: In doing so, what are some of the things that people are learning about philanthropy and nonprofit leadership? Maybe stuff that you’ve seen within Brilliant Labs or in the industry as a whole. 

John: We’re all having to quickly develop new ways to remain essential during a  global pandemic, and how do we align this with our mission? Well, quite frankly while also maximizing fundraising potential requires us to support these new initiatives that’s still relevant to addressing all these new challenges to our communities. 

In April UNICEF Canada had issued an initiative for just specifically spelling out in detail already marginalized, at risk, vulnerable youth were experiencing further challenges already living challenging lives was even more so living in further isolation without communities like public school. Where we live here in this part of Atlantic Canada in St.John there are communities of children who in going to school families can depend on these to feed them breakfast and lunch and with school closing that had to be addressed. So the community had to rally really quickly and partner to address this. 

And in terms of Brilliant Labs again, we had to determine what it is we need to do to take everything virtually. This is brave new learning for us, new territory. How are we then going to secure additional resources to support this new initiative? 

Sabrina: Yeah, the gaps are becoming very clear I feel for all sides and I think people are realizing there needs to be a lot more to support education and these basic needs like food, clothing and shelter. 

John: I mean let’s be frank, there have always been challenges for many different reasons and what the pandemic has done has again reinforced these gaps and laid them bare, you know.  We’ve always known this and they just come to the forefront. 

Sabrina: Do you feel the mindset that people have around fundraising and charity will change? Have you found this has helped or hindered the culture of giving? 

John: That's a really interesting question. There are a lot of urgent needs in communities relating to the pandemic requiring new fundraising efforts but that still doesn’t take away that we need a strong case and organizational readiness to properly fundraise. I see a lot of organizations just sort of dive into the fundraising and raising money and I guess, in part I get it. Fundraisers like to say you don’t want to waste a good crisis as an opportunity to fundraise. However without necessarily putting together a compelling case which creates that culture of philanthropy which then supports what you are raising funds for, that COVID initiative doesn’t follow through. 

I mean there are some real needs and charities that require charitable support and while people are more than happy to generously give to those fundraisers more than ever to create that cultural philanthropy of support and for all the things that has everyone contributing together. 

Sabrina: Yeah, I found that last few weeks I’ve seen people become so supportive of each other. I have seen people in the community that I’m in that I’ve seen through our local news channels, sewing masks for each other, getting groceries for strangers. It’s really interesting to see that even when people can’t give monetary gifts in-kind and work their putting in. 

John: That’s really important, that's part of the culture of philanthropy, it doesn’t include just the giving of money, giving of funds  or can be giving of time, giving in-kind. It’s all those things that come together that’s creating an opportunity to give the maximum of their ability at the time and for them to feel that they are really contributing, making a difference and having an impact. 

Sabrina: Definitely, and there is so much going on right now in the world which I know can seem daunting for some, but it also offers an opportunity. For some that’s to give and for others it offers time to reflect on a way of doing things to learn and grow. So how can nonprofits specifically reflect on their organizations and approach change?

John: I mean as we discussed earlier the pandemic has really enforced the gaps and inequities in society today. There is a lot of discussion on not returning to the bad normal, the pre-COVID times. Particularly among young people who see this as an opportunity to inform how we can, as the expression goes "build back better”, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. 

This is an opportunity, as challenging as things are and the uncertainty and we still don’t know how long this is going to go on for, but I like to think there is also a great opportunity for us to change.  Maybe it’s just my overriding sense of altruism and hope but I think young people today are seeing this as a time for real impactful change. I suppose as we’re reacting to the urgent needs in our community it’s also a time to take  a moment to focus and imagine how we can be doing things differently and better to live in a new post-pandemic world.

Sabrina: I found on social media I’ve seen so much engagement between people in their teens and their twenties, it’s just phenomenal. I’ve seen people rally together for the black lives movement, I’m seeing people really reach out to each other for support in terms of mental health while staying in doors. It’s really inspiring, makes me have a lot of hope and I’m excited to see how we’re going to work together beyond this pandemic to see how we continue to support each other. 

John: Absolutely, today young people more than ever are connected with what's going on in the world and while this might feel anxious or outright scary I feel young people today are eternally hopeful. Let us not forget young people today, more than ever seem almost intuitively seem to learn how to learn and develop in the face of challenges. We are talking about young people today with their full education, who have learned through problem solving, have learned through addressing challenges. Project based learning, problem based learning, that’s where young people's heads are at for the most part. I mean, as we discussed one of the things this dynamic has exposed is how complex our social challenges are. And you know, it’s going to take all of us coming together to address this things as you just said you’re seeing young people come together. 

And coupled with the fact that youth today wanted to make a difference and an impact why are we not creating space for them to take an active role and participate as a collective? The problems today need more than yesterday's solutions, I didn’t come up with that. We need to boldly think to help meet the challenges of the future right now. Now’s the time to include young people at the decision making table to help build strong vibrant communities in a post COVID world. 

Sabrina: How about how organizations are operating, you know youth are doing such a  good job to work towards sustainability. How can organizations also work towards sustainability and support these young activists especially when there is a lot of uncertainty moving forward. 

John: Personally speaking, I think we can start by learning how young people find hope through their use of today’s technologies, and I’m not saying that because I am working with Brilliant Labs. I’m always fascinated with how young people today being so native with technology feel that there's not a challenge or problem in today's world that can’t be addressed with technology. Young people today are native, almost intuitively and while this is still going to require a lot of time to figure out, that’s why more than ever we need to engage young people not to help because it will require time. It’s that mindset, I may be wrong but I think that’s where almost intuitively young people found their hope. 

So to your question organizations need to perhaps understand that and learn to create that space for young people if that’s truly what they want to focus on. 

Sabrina: What I really love about Brilliant Labs is that you encourage kids to be curious about learning and get hands-on experience in trial and error which I feel helps build that resilience which contributes to this whole culture of hope. The idea of "ok if that’s not working, what can we try next? Or how can we move forward?” It’s always looking ahead instead of back. 

John: Coupled with that also is the sense of building empathy. We’ve known this for a long time, empathy plays an important role in a young person’s learning and education. It’s one thing for us to connect and engage a young person’s interests and support them to develop a passion in a way they can take ownership of their learning and in doing so learning how to learn. Learning through maker-centered learning as you just referenced, hands on experiential project based, inquiry baked learning. All that stuff, empathy plays a really key role in that person’s ability to really take a moment to pause and really understand the problem that is before them they are wanting to address to make things better. How do you make things better? 

I was in communication with a colleague just the other day and as an example of how this plays out my colleague Sarah Ryan the provincial program director was telling me about a class in a middle school just before schools were closed for COVID. They were making waterproof sitting mats for sports games, beaches etc, from recycled grocery store bags. And they were going to make sleeping mats to donate to people living, who are street involved, who are transient or homeless and to donate a mat for a certain amount that had been sold. So if they sold so many they would donate one, and the design of the mats were gonna be community focused so they would have a design that would speak to the community for instance fishing. But would you know that this project was selected as a finalist for Nova Scotia’s Ministers entrepreneurship award for excellence. 

Sabrina: No way!

John: Yeah, how awesome is that? This is a middle school we’re talking grade seven and eight. Again the opportunity when we’re able to engage young people and speak truthfully about the world and as much as there are opportunities there are also real challenges you know need to be addressed or could be addressed in supporting them in planning that way. Through empathy, design thinking and than introducing today’s technology wherever appropriate in helping them and helping to support them in their ideas and solutions. 

Sabrina: We talked a lot about Brilliant Labs work in teaching kids how to learn using todays technology, there’s so much we can learn from the youth around us and as we discussed there are so many different ways they’re engaging with technologies to interact with their interests and passions. But how important is that we are actively engaging with them, and connecting with them coming out of this pandemic? 

John: I think we need to understand clearly first of all what is it that we hope to achieve in  truly wanting to engage and connect with young people. We talked about how it’s really important to include them now more than ever to give them a seat at the table to participate and actively address some of the challenges in our communities but I am fearful that we do this for reasons of appearance. In the end it can appear almost token, tokenism. The tip of the hat, I think young people today and you hear them- "keeping it real” you know, real authenticity. I think children today, young people today, they are so aware or have been made to become so aware of what is happening around the world that they need to be engaged in very real authentic ways. And not just given a token seat at the table but really be supported. 

So to answer your question we need to learn how to have young people lead. We need to be comfortable in sharing that space, learning how to support young people to let them lead. And let them lead in a way that lets them learn more about the very thing they are trying to address and in doing so learning more about themselves in the process and learning through trial and error, because it’s gonna be that right? So how do we support young people in doing that. 

I am always fascinated in speaking with young people and hearing their ideas on how they would go about solving something. Something I have had to learn and continue to learn how to do is thinking ok how do I support them and continue to support them on how to lead. 

Sabrina: There’s a lot of hesitation when it comes to letting younger people lead because there is always that idea of experience. There’s that joke of how do I apply to that job, it’s an entry level position they want five years experience and I just got out of university. I think and what I love about what you said is there is a lot of trust in letting people with let experience lead and there's a lot of vulnerability too. 

John: Absolutely, on both sides. It works both ways, so again "keeping it real” have that conversation up front and also understanding as the employer , as the supervisor, as the boss, as the leader this should also influence the way we lead leaders. I think the best way for both situations is learning how to lead by supporting from behind to create that trusting relationship. That respectful relationship when you can enter a conversation that is able to match a young person’s knowledge, skills, using this technology with an older person’s experience. And to have that conversation and to really flush out-

Sabrina: Exactly this is such a  critical time for charities and there is so much we can be doing differently, so what do you hope to see moving forward? What advice do you have for organizations out there who are still confused on how to react to the whole situation. I know, heavy questions.

John: What advice would I have? I only have advice from the perspective of where I’m standing and I guess going back to more than ever we’re going to need to learn how to have all hands on deck in a post pandemic recovery especially if we don’t want to return to a bad normal. What does that mean? I guess it means quickly learning how your charity or non for profit can effectively meet the new challenges and new opportunities that have risen from the pandemic. How do we do this with real impact? And also with our mission creed. That would be the way to go, and to include what we’ve been speaking about. Looking for ways to include young people more than ever. 

Sabrina: That's a really great point and I’m sorry to say that is all the time we have for today, so thank you John for joining us. For those listening you can learn more about Brilliant Labs at Brilliant, there are so many amazing learning resources there like their daily maker challenges and they also have virtual summer camps! 

Their Brilliant Labs Virtual Summer STEAM camp is open right right now and that will be running July 6-August 21, link is in the description. They have a ton of amazing activities planned liked coding and learning how computers and robots think so it’s a really cool learning opportunity you should definitely check it out. 

As always thank you so much for listening and we will see you next time on Fundraising Superheroes! 

If you would like to learn how to improve your organization's communication and workflow feel free to contact us at We are happy to help you find a solution that works for your organization and give you a free demo of our software. 

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Podcast Jun 26, 2020, 12:00 AM

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