Best practices for engaging youth as volunteers (part four)

By Donna Lockhart
December 5, 2005
(as it appeared in Charity Village)

In the first three parts of Best Practices for Engaging Youth, questions were posed under the title of 'Organizational Readiness'. This article focuses on key considerations related to youth opportunities and relationships. An organization needs to discuss, decide and plan for these considerations as well.

Youth Opportunities and Relationships

When "community involvement" was first introduced by Ontario's Ministry of Education (a mandatory 40 hours of community service before high school graduation), many organizations quickly embraced the concept and accepted youth without fully realizing what impact this might have on their organization and on youth themselves. It was both positive and negative. Little thought was given to differences in age and maturity level, let alone thinking about actually interviewing, screening, or having position descriptions for the work youth would do.

Organizations need to think carefully about what 'entry age' they are prepared to take; how to screen based on maturity level (if this is important to the work to be done), and putting guidelines in place (position description) so that expectations are clear. Is there a specific age range that aligns better with the organization? Should you only consider college students with a four-month block placement because this fits the work needs of the organization? How would you define 'youth' within your organization?

Best Practice: Consider the wide range of ages of youth and determine the best fit for your organization and the opportunities you can support.

The influx of youth seeking high school 'involvement hours' raised awareness of the other possibilities for engaging youth. Competition for volunteers put pressure on managers of volunteers to seek volunteers from a wider range and variety of groups. Many young people still come as a 'pure volunteer' - wanting experience and an opportunity to share their skills. They do not tie their commitment to a reward like completion of their high school certificate. However, community involvement in high school opened the door for organizations to access thousands of young people for a 40-hour commitment. Other opportunities include: high school co-operative programs (a block of time for course credit); college placements (ranging from a 2-week block of time to a 4-month block for course credit); university projects (many social service/research programs have groups of students available to take on projects from six months to a year); university co-ops (where registered employers pay students for work done); and a wide range of international groups like Katimavik or Canada World Youth can be explored. Community foundations, environmental youth groups, and church youth groups should also be included in the mix.

Best Practice: Explore and consider all the options available for utilizing young people in the work of your organization and find the right fit or mix of opportunities to develop a youth program.

Many organizations take existing volunteer positions and slot youth into them. We have available at our finger tips much data about what youth do in volunteering, and what they want and need from an experience. The US-based Centre for Philanthropy created several fact sheets on youth and volunteering with invaluable information. Most often, we need to adapt our existing positions to fit a youth profile. This is one way of working with youth - adapting our current volunteer opportunities to meet the needs of a specific sector. Another might be to create a totally new position with the needs of youth in mind. There might be specific projects that lend themselves to the energy and creativity that youth bring. An additional idea might be to work with young people and their interests and create new opportunities that meet both their needs and those of the agency. This is not a make work project, but an opportunity to build a satisfying volunteer experience. Opportunities created by and for youth may be the ultimate successful experience.

Best Practice: Keep up to date on the data that is available on youth volunteering. The next census takes place in 2006. Use this information as a guide to adapting existing volunteer positions or to create new ones. Keep your options open to youth-designed and directed opportunities.

Clear and specific guidelines or position descriptions need to be in place. Young people need to know the scope of their tasks, boundaries of work, and clear expectations. For many, this may be their first experience in a work setting. A professional, clearly outlined relationship will bring incredible rewards. A position description is much like a contract. It provides additional guidelines that many young people may find necessary in a first-time position. Make sure the young people you engage have a copy of this description.

Best Practice: Develop clear and concise position descriptions for youth volunteers.

"Forty-six percent of young people want to develop new skills in their volunteer experience and 65% believe that volunteering will lead to paid employment" (Centre for Philanthropy). This is important information when considering adapting current volunteer positions or creating new ones. How can we show young people the skills they will learn and the connection to future employment if we don't build these into the volunteer positions we offer? Too often I have heard youth exclaim that all they did was stuff envelopes or enter data...and they were not about to stay beyond their 40-hour commitment! Other agencies told me that youth stayed beyond all expectations when the work was challenging, interesting, and skills were developed. Having a leadership role where skills like communication and problem solving are developed might also influence length of stay.

Best Practice: Read all you can about what youth want and deliver that experience in the volunteer positions you offer.

When examining existing volunteer positions, take into account new directions or trends. Can we offer virtual volunteer opportunities or offer youth experiences that happen outside of normal work hours? Many organizations limit their use of youth to those who can come during normal work hours - the 9 to 5 office. By doing this, you loose opportunities for exciting work done off site and on the time schedule of the volunteer. Remember that young people have very complex and busy lives juggling school, work, family, and friends even without the added dimension of community involvement. There are many things that can be done off site: from research, design and development of a newsletter or web site; to developing training materials into PowerPoint productions. Need a video history of your organization or a video made for orientation? Many of these projects can be self-directed and completed outside of the office environment. By being more creative around supervision and support, you can encourage and engage youth in new and exciting ways. Perhaps you also need to think about the work hours you keep as staff. Can you adjust to flexible time? This would allow youth who come after school or during holiday breaks to work with you on projects.

Best Practice: Think outside of normal work hours and find ways to engage youth in new and exciting projects that best suit their time and skills.

The art of volunteer management is building relationships. If your volunteers are off site, you need to find creative ways to supervise and get feedback. Are there mechanisms in place for young people to feel comfortable giving feedback? What has been the expectation? How can you build a two-way street and make it a positive experience for youth? Remember, when you engage youth you are acting as an important role model.

Best Practice: Build in opportunities for two-way communication - youth give feedback right from the beginning and you provide the feedback necessary so they have a successful learning experience.

Watch for part five and part six on best practices. They will focus on best practices related to processes and practices. These two articles will be the last of this series. There are many pieces to put in place before involving youth. A sample of ideas has been presented for your consideration.

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