Best practices for engaging youth as volunteers (part one)

By Donna Lockhart
June 13, 2005
(as it appeared in Charity Village)

Many people would not look upon working with 'youth' as a gift. Especially adults with teenagers still living at home. I know many who would like to ship them out until they have matured and bring them back as adults! Just skip those challenging, frightening years of discontent and go directly to adulthood.

When the Ministry of Education introduced "community involvement hours" almost 5 years ago now, I was likely one of a small handful of Managers of Volunteers who actually embraced the idea. To me it was a 'gift' to the voluntary sector but as such it was not immediately apparent and there were many layers of wrapping to get through.

Managers of Volunteers are in the business of promoting voluntarism. This mandated opportunity to engage youth even as quasi-volunteers provided us with the potential to build them into life-long volunteers. An actual opportunity to work towards sustainable voluntarism.

But as many are aware, community involvement hours brought some major challenges to the field: a 40 hour commitment; no infra structure to support students search for meaningful opportunities; no understanding on behalf of students about the voluntary sector; no clear evaluation process for completion or what was an acceptable 'involvement opportunity'; many students leaving completion of this task until the 12th hour and many organizations unprepared for the deluge of youth at their doors.

If we are going to engage youth as volunteers then we need to do it right. This is no different than engaging other sectors in volunteering except that for many young people this is their first exposure to volunteering or community service. The Centre for Philanthropy provides us with valuable data on youth. The following statement reinforced for me that this "community involvement" requirement of high school students, was in fact a "gift" to the voluntary sector. How we use this gift is our challenge.

"An interest in volunteering, developed during one's youth is likely to be maintained in adulthood. This suggests the importance of providing positive, early volunteering experiences for youth, as these experiences may lead to continued volunteering in the adult years." NSGVP report 2000.

So how do we go about providing these positive experiences for youth? Here are a few of the best practices that I have learned in my work with youth and voluntary organizations. Whether you engage youth as pure volunteers, students/quasi-volunteers in community involvement, students in high school co-op programs or college students on placement, the foundations are the same.

Be Organization Ready

  • Consider the organization's Past History involving youth. Was it favorable or are bad feelings still apparent? Does the past history support or hinder opportunities to work with youth? It is really important that we consider our history so that a) we do not repeat the mistakes of the past and b) we can put in place measures that support positive experiences.
    Best Practice: Discuss and understand the impact of past history and work to make some changes.
  • Is your organization Youth-Friendly? Consider the culture of your organization and its willingness to accept and work with youth. Have staff and volunteers considered what roles youth can play in the work to be delivered? Or are you responding out of that social responsibility of "we must do this". Put some valuable pieces in place first... or what I call doing our homework to make a win-win situation. Consider what would make us "youth-friendly" or how could we tell if we were? Invite some young people in to help you tackle that question! (could be as simple as posters depicting youth engaged in the service delivery of your organization)
    Best Practice: Determine what makes your organization Youth-Friendly and implement changes if you want to be successful!
  • Too often when youth opportunities fail, the organization resolves never to engage youth again. In fact the organization may not have been ready to work with youth. It is so easy to blame youth for our short comings. If you are "Not Ready" to take youth then say NO until you are. It is better to turn them down than to engage them in what results as a negative opportunity. Getting them back as adult volunteers is unlikely to happen.
    Best Practice: Say NO until the organization is ready!
  • Has staff considered and determined that engaging youth is a direction worth pursuing? Who will be an "Advocate" for youth if and when something goes wrong? Youth can have a powerful impact on our organizations but they are also a misunderstood group (every generation was) and for this reason it is important that adults provide support, encouragement and "champion" the role for youth in organizations.
    Best Practice: If you don't have an advocate or champion for youth I believe you are doomed to failure. Have a champion or don't do it.

Barbara Oates, BC Regional Co-ordinator/National Consultant on Youth In Philanthropy, Community Foundations of Canada, recently wrote an article for Canadian Fundraiser entitled "Engaging The Millennium Generation revitalizes Organizations." In this article, she stresses the need to create the right conditions for involving youth.

"Genuine youth engagement does not just happen," says Oates. "It requires the presence of a variety of factors in combination for its initiative and implementation, and the creation and maintenance of conditions conducive to supporting its growth and evolution."

Barbara believes as I do that some of the primary factors include: "a field of interest relevant to youth, real decision-making responsibility, supportive adults, room for new ideas, and shifts of power and control." Many of these factors are a threat to organizations because they represent a change in culture, a way of work and a shift in many of the underlying structures.

This article on Best Practices is the beginning of what will be a continuing resource on engaging youth. I will explore some of these other areas that Barbara outlines in future articles. There are many pieces to put in place before involving youth. A sample of these pieces have been presented for your consideration.

The best advice: Don t engage youth because "it is the right thing to do." Engage youth because you have the right ingredients to provide successful volunteer experiences within an organization that is "youth-ready."

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