Last week I had the privilege of sitting on the Vitalize 2012 Conference youth engagement panel, ‘Volunteerism: The Next Generation’ moderated by my colleague Steven Kwasny. I joined 16-year old co-founder of 8th Rung Jocelyn Davis, Volunteer Calgary’s Community & Service Learning Coordinator, Ralamy Kneeshaw, and Banff Volunteer Centre Executive Director (and all-around youth engagement guru) Katherine Topolniski, on the panel for a fun and interactive afternoon session.
Two of the themes I found particularly interesting that emerged over the course of the conversation seem on the surface to be contradictory: we need to start treating youth more similarly to ‘non-youth’, and, at the same time, we need to start treating youth differently.
Just like with everyone else, youth engagement only works well when good recruitment, retention, and recognition practices are in place. And, just like everyone else, if these processes aren’t in place (and even if they are) sometimes youth won’t show up, or won’t stay on long term. As Ralamy reminded those at the session, you have likely had an absentee board member or a problem with high volunteer turn-over – even when it isn’t youth that you are engaging! Blaming either of these problems on age is a failed opportunity to improve your volunteer program and increase youth engagement at your organization.
At the same time though, it is important to recognize that ‘youth’ is a relevant category insofar as it tends to describe shared experiences. For example, many young people have a schedule quite different from other age groups: they have school 8:30-4:30 if they are still in grade school, or they have school all the time if they are attending post-secondary. In other words, a 15-year-old is never going to be able to attend your lunch meeting, and a university student will have a hard time committing themselves to an organization that can’t work around their exam schedule.
Youth might have a curfew or need parental permission, they might rely on public transit or rides from relatives, and many of them, students and older youth in particular, are low-income, have entry-level positions, poor job security, and are in debt or have lots of expenses like tuition. Recognizing these needs and challenges will help to inform more successful ways of recruiting, retaining, and recognizing youth volunteers.
Some specific tips and recommendations that came out of the session include:
- Ask youth how they would like to be engaged at your organization. This is good practice in any volunteer’s orientation, but take it a step further and organize a focus group including youth you have already engaged, as well as youth that aren’t yet involved. Find out what their needs are and, more importantly, where their passions and skills lie, and how to tap into both.
- Remember that ‘youth’ is not a homogenous category. Be prepared to engage everyone from youth with disabilities, to immigrant youth, to outgoing youth, to youth who hate public speaking, to youth who never show up on time, to youth who love spreadsheets (I am one of them!).
- Relationship-building is a fantastic technique for retaining any volunteer. Don’t isolate youth from the rest of your team, and make the effort to encourage friendships. As I mentioned during the panel, the reason I have stayed on for extended periods at certain organizations is always because I love who I work with, even more than I love what I am doing.
- Get started by using existing youth groups, like sports teams, church groups, or classes. The relationships are already there. An audience member told us about a playground in his community that was built by a football team who already had a built-in volunteer manager: the coach.
- Put youth on equal footing in your organization. They might not have all the skills or knowledge as older team members, but that’s because they haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn them, not because they aren’t able to do a good job once the tools are provided. Their ideas are no less likely to work than someone else’s; in fact they might be exactly what your organization needs to reach people in the 21st century.
In short, we recommend approaching youth as people who have excellent motivations for getting involved in the nonprofit/voluntary sector, and a few minor obstacles standing in the way of them doing that. Just like the rest of your volunteers.
Now, go help them get involved!