How can companies engage with children and young people?

Originally published in The Guardian

Almost one third of the world’s population – over 2.2 billion – is under 18 so it is inevitable that business has an impact on their daily lives. Today’schildren and young people are tomorrow’s consumers, employees and community members. Together, these facts make a compelling case for business to give their young stakeholders a voice in how they operate and strategise.

But when is it appropriate for business to actively involve children? And how can they harness young people’s views in a meaningful way that protects their rights whilst allowing them to fully participate in business decisions?

From their current influence on decision making to their future purchasing power, children represent a powerful force in the marketplace. Emma Rea is the founder of brand and innovation consultancy Number 71, which works with UK businesses including Pizza Express and Byron. She says children’s “largely unfettered imaginations” offer business unique insights and perspectives.

“Because they are not bound by the constraints of corporate life, and have no knowledge of company structures, awareness of production capabilities and the like, children and young people are able to see opportunity where adults see issues, see solutions where we see problems and, crucially, make connections that we would never have thought possible.”

Rea believes there is a strong business case for involving children’s voices in the design of new buildings and services: “Whether it is a school building, a public transport ticket machine or a new snack food, organisations should consult children on what they would like and listen to their views before making final decisions. The end results are far more likely to be readily taken up and enjoyed by children.”

In addition to inviting children and parents to help enhance its store design and customer experience, toy manufacturer Lego offers young people a chance to have a say in product design. Launched in 2008,Lego CUUSOO (Japanese for ‘wish’) is an online crowdsourcing project that invites users to submit and vote for ideas for new Lego sets. If an idea gets 10,000 votes, Lego will review it for possible production. If the idea gets the green light, its creators get a 1% share of the product’s net sales. Creators must be 18 so they are eligible to enter a formal contract if successful, however bids can be supported by children age 13 and over.

While true ‘co-creation’ product initiatives like this one are still relatively rare, involving children and young people in strategic planning has become more commonplace. B&Q launched its first Youth Board in 2011 following a nationwide search for nine young people to rethink and redesign the company’s business model for the future. As part of its work with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on sustainability, the company wanted recruits to reassess its business in the light of future challenges such as the rising costs of materials and energy, and growing population.

During the year-long project, members aged 16 to 19 were mentored by their counterparts on the B&Q board. Their recommendations include more targeted marketing campaigns via social media to reach younger generations, and developing closed loop brands, products and services that will add value now and in the future.

Plan International USA has child advisory groups in its 50 programme countries and youth advisory boards in its fundraising offices. The child poverty NGO has just appointed its first youth trustee – 22-year-old Marisa Haire – who has been involved with Plan since she was 13, when she helped to launch the YUGA nationwide network of young people who take action on global issues.

President and CEO, Tessie San Martin, says young people become involved with Plan via clearly defined routes: “They learn the issues, engage with Plan in youth-friendly ways, and over time gain an understanding of the organisation. By engaging youth at different levels within the organisation, we’ve created a model that supports sustainable engagement.”

Plan also engages children and young people through youth media clubs, where participants conduct research about a rights issue, partner with a local radio station or TV station, interview members of the community, and design educational radio and TV programmes.

San Martin has seen these projects at work in Ecuador. “The children and youth in very poor and drug-ridden neighbourhoods put together some incredibly well-done and impactful docu-dramas around very tough themes like drug abuse, crime, and sex trafficking,” she says.

“Adult community leaders found that such actions were far more effective than anything they could have designed to disseminate important public health and education messages that actually impact attitudes and behaviours,” she adds.

Organisations should see participation by children as a strategic asset and not a “tick-the-box” exercise, says San Martin. Another challenge is having the right systems in place to support such engagement, such as training or mentoring for staff working with young people. Clear evaluation and measurement guidelines are also essential, to give all involved the chance to identify on a regular basis what is and is not working.

San Martin stresses that it is “crucial” that organisations establish and adhere to policies around child and youth protection, participation, and ethics. The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights sets out a framework for how business should protect the rights of stakeholders, including children, in its operations.

The Children’s Rights and Business Principles, developed by UNICEF, the UN Global Compact and Save the Children, builds on this by setting out the actions that business can take in the workplace, marketplace and community to respect and support children’s rights.

Denise Kleinrichert, associate professor, management/ethics at theCenter for Ethical and Sustainable Business at San Francisco State University, believes organisations need to ensure that there is “informed consent” when working with children.

“I think it is ethical to include children’s voices but you have got to have protection,” she says. “If you are approaching children in social media environments designed for and by children, there are still privacy issues that can result in harm.

“And are children fully informed? Do they understand what they are being asked to do?”

Rea agrees that organisations should be sensitive around age and privacy issues, but adds: “As soon as children can offer a point of view or preference for things, then we should take their views on board. This is not just an altruistic vision, but a pragmatic one.”

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