Best practices for engaging youth as volunteers (part three)

By Donna Lockhart
October 3, 2005
(as it appeared in Charity Village)

This is the final look at best practices from the 'Be Organization Ready' perspective. These practices really lay the framework for other considerations and are questions that lie at the heart of good planning. Too often we jump into program development without taking the time to develop, ask, and explore critical questions. The discussion and debate that takes place in our organizations around youth involvement is a solid investment.

Be Organization Ready continued

The decision to involve volunteers in any capacity in the work of your organization has an element of risk attached to it. This is why it is important for staff and board to develop a risk management strategy. We are fortunate in Canada to have a leading expert in this field - Linda Graff - who has researched, written numerous books, and conducted hundreds of workshops on risk management. Screening is the term most of us associate with risk management, but it is just one tool in our effort to minimize, manage and eliminate risk. Organizations needs to think about engaging youth from many perspectives. What are the risks involved in bringing youth into our organization? What risks are there for clients, staff, the facility, the community, our reputation? Have we determined the appropriate "age" of the youth that we can involve? Would there be less risk if we used older youth or should we focus on younger youth? Do we serve vulnerable clients and how can we minimize the risk in a youth-client relationship? Is maturity an issue and how might supervision and training help?

As I was developing the Youth Volunteer Audit two key questions kept surfacing: What does it take to create a win-win situation for youth and agency? What do I need to do to ensure a successful volunteer experience for youth? The key findings from the Imagine Fact Sheets produced on Encouraging Volunteering among Ontario Youth, 2000 stated it dramatically in the relationship between early life experiences being connected to the likelihood of volunteering in adult years. So a new slant on risk management might be: "What can I do to manage, minimize and eliminate the risk or possibility that this young person will have a bad experience?"

Best Practice: List all the questions that need to be asked relative to youth and risk. Develop a strategy for each area that will determine how to minimize, manage or eliminate the risk. These strategies will form the basis for the development of good policies and procedures.

The development of policies and procedures are often the best action we can formally take to show how we have worked to eliminate risk. Consideration might be needed for policies and procedures specifically designed for youth. For example: a policy on engaging youth would clearly define the meaning, roles, boundaries and supports the agency would provide for youth volunteers. How are we going to screen youth? Is an interview mandatory and will a police reference check be required? Some organizations have established a policy that indicates they will not take students for "community involvement - 40 hour commitments" but will consider those who will commit to longer engagements. Is supervision an issue that needs clarification and special consideration for youth? Do youth fit into our existing policy format or should we consider youth-specific policies and procedures?

Best Practice: Develop clear policies and procedures that can be applied to the variety of youth opportunities in your organization. These might be specific to youth or integrated into the other polices of the organization.

Engaging volunteer groups such as youth may require special attention to what I term the 'resource base' of the agency. From my experience in developing a youth leadership program, I learned quickly that feeding young people is one critical piece in the support system. Have you thought about what additional supports, supplies or resources might be needed? Can you provide bus passes for youth to get to the organization or a parking pass if they are old enough to drive? Making volunteering accessible means eliminating any barriers, such as cost, from the equation. We often forget that our adult volunteers spend money to get to us to volunteer; they drive cars, take the bus etc. with often no thought or desire for compensation, especially if they are working. We need to remember that young people cannot afford this additional expense. Have we eliminated them from our organizations simply because we forgot to integrate a travel support component?

I also recognized that any training provided for adult volunteers would need to be changed for youth. This means that staff need time to design and develop new approaches for orienting and training youth (or better yet why not recruit youth to design and deliver the training?). This has to be built into planning time. I have also found that many young people are excellent with technology. Making investments in new computer programs and stations in order to support these interests of youth means financial planning and fundraising. It might seem great at the time to have a web site developed by a youth volunteer, but if you can't support the costs associated with it (domain name, server and hosting) then this is not a worthwhile venture.

Best Practice: Determine any additional resources that will be required to engage youth in the organization and develop a budget/funding plan to support this direction.

Watch for part four on best practices for engaging youth as volunteers. It will focus on best practices as they relate to youth opportunities and relationships.

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