Upstream vs. Downstream Solutions in Youth Funding

Written by Claire Beutler, Program Coordinator

In the philanthropic sector, the topic of how, where, and by whom money is spent is at the forefront of discussion. There are many nonprofit organizations addressing the needs of our communities. The solutions these organizations use to meet their missions can often be categorized as “upstream” or “downstream” solutions. 

  • Upstream solutions are characterized by proactive systematic advancement. This can look like issue-based advocacy, education initiatives, policy change, or other systemic solutions. 
  • Downstream solutions are characterized by reactive services. These direct services address immediate issues that communities are actively facing. Examples include providing housing, food, emergency response, medical assistance, etc.

Youth in our grant-making programs often provide funding to both types of solutions through their Impact Awards.

Movement 5280, a recipient of a 2022 YouthBoard Impact Award, utilizes downstream solutions in their work. Movement 5280 provides a family of support to homeless youth who have aged out of foster care, as well as other at-risk young people lacking guidance as they transition into adulthood. One of the tenets of Movement 5280 is assisting with youths’ basic needs: a safe place to rest, food, clothing, showers and hygiene, and IDs/birth certificates. These services address the current, essential needs of youth in the community – in other words, they utilize downstream solutions. 

On the other side of the river, we have organizations like 350 Colorado, another recipient of a 2022 YouthBoard Impact Award. 350 Colorado elevates youth voices to secure broad-reaching policy and regulatory shifts that put the health and safety of communities first, while building a demand for a just transition off fossil fuels. They use education and political advocacy to address the climate crisis and transition to a sustainable future – clear examples of upstream solutions. 

Some organizations utilize a “Both/And” philosophy to balance their services between upstream and downstream solutions. With this motto, an organization approaches an issue they wish to ameliorate with the intention to support both systemic change and meet the immediate needs of their constituents. By doing so, they are simultaneously meeting the critical direct service needs of the community and working towards systematic change for the future. The “Both/And” philosophy can also bring challenges, like stretching organizations too thin and putting unrealistic workloads on constituents. Organizations find great success, fulfill their missions and enrich their communities working on all ends of the “river.”

Both upstream and downstream solutions are important and valuable to our communities – we need organizations on both sides of the river. Without systematic change, the need for reactive solutions would exceed the capacity of nonprofit organizations. Without direct service addressing immediate needs, organizations would be too overwhelmed to organize towards greater change. 

The balance of upstream and downstream solutions funding is especially pertinent to issues affecting youth, like homelessness, climate change, mental health, and so many others. Young people need direct support to thrive now, but they also need systemic changes to ensure their own survival and prosperity in the future. By keeping the flow of funding in the forefront of our minds, the philanthropic sector can support both solution types and keep society moving in a positive direction.

Alyssa HornyakUpstream vs. Downstream Solutions in Youth Funding