Best practices for engaging youth as volunteers (part five)

By Donna Lockhart
February 6, 2006
(as it appeared in Charity Village)

This is the final in a series of articles on best practices for engaging youth. The first four covered questions to consider under the headings of 'Organizational Readiness' and 'Youth Opportunities and Relationships'. You are now ready to look at Processes and Practices. I believe if an organization works through all these areas, develops strategies and a good plan to engage youth, not only will youth have a good experience, but the potential for retention increases and potential to volunteer as an adult also increases. Are we in volunteer management for the short or long haul?

Processes and Practices

  • If you are establishing a youth program for the first time, I believe talking to others and researching ideas is critical. It's important to keep doing this for as long as you engage youth. Talk to other organizations that have a youth focus; talk with youth themselves; do a focus group in a classroom; or better yet, ask a group of youth to do this for you (with training, of course); talk to parents, guardians and school teachers.
    Best Practice: Build in a process that will gather information about youth and use it as a foundation piece for all your planning and evaluation.
  • Is there a need for specific policies and procedures that are unique to youth? Make sure you identify, develop and evaluate policies and procedures on a regular basis. There may be some barriers that currently exist that prohibit or limit youth in your organization. Identify these and find creative ways to solve them. For example, one organization purchased bus passes for youth who were on the far side of town from the high school. Getting to the organization was the challenge and when the barrier was eliminated, youth saw a great opportunity to get involved.
    Best Practice: Establish policies and procedures for youth. Integrate them into existing general policies or develop as a separate unit.
  • What is the climate or environment like in your organization for communication, openness, risk-taking, having fun? Do you use a lot of jargon that could be modified? Are you flexible with the 'time' that youth volunteers can be in the facility? Could you consider staff changing their hours of work to accommodate times when youth are available? Do you see youth as part of the team? Do you provide them with dress down and dress up opportunities? If there are challenges in the existing organization, perhaps this is time to make some changes that will have a positive impact on everyone.
    Best Practice: Create an open, inviting environment that welcomes youth as an active participant of your volunteer-staff team.
  • Are orientation and training events scheduled and accessible to youth? Do you understand that youth seek opportunities to build skills that lead to employment? Do your youth volunteer positions reflect skill-building?
    Best Practice: Illustrating how skills will be developed can be reflected in the position descriptions you offer. Training opportunities help young people build skills that can be transferred to the workplace. Providing a letter of reference reinforces your seriousness about supporting youth.
  • Have you considered that you might have to develop a new leadership/supervisory style to work with youth? In fact, being a 'mentor' requires additional time and skills. How do you encourage and support feedback? How might your style change with the maturity level of the young person?
    Best Practice: The relationship that develops between the supervisor and the young person has a tremendous impact on the end result. We need to nurture for the long term in building sustainable volunteers. Be a mentor and role model for youth.
  • Have you determined how and when to recognize the efforts of youth? Do you understand the recognition-retention connection? Having events specific to youth might be more successful than inviting youth to take part in annual, large events where all volunteers are recognized. An organization that serves the elderly wondered by young people failed to show up at the annual recognition tea. They indicated the importance of the intergenerational aspect but forgot that the youth they engaged had not been assigned to work with the elderly in the first place. What significance does a 'tea' hold for youth?
    Best Practice: Provide appropriate recognition for youth regardless of how much time they contributed.
  • Have you considered ways to measure a) the impact that youth have on your clients/services and b) the impact that volunteering has on the youth themselves? We need to measure our success at engaging youth and our role in building a life-long commitment to voluntarism.
    Best Practice: Establish meaningful outcomes that can be measured. Consider surveys and exit interviews with youth to give you information to improve your program.

Youth are the future leaders. Youth are the future volunteers, as well. Leadership skills need to be learned and used just as understanding voluntarism needs to be explored and experienced. You have an incredible opportunity to blend the two - leadership and voluntarism. By offering meaningful volunteer opportunities, where leadership and skills can be explored and expanded, young people can transfer these to the workplace. Once in the workplace, young adults will look to the voluntary sector as an area to give back.

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