Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Krystal Hare
In 2017, the Independent Sector noted that the current value of volunteer time is now $24.14 per hour – up 2.5 percent from their 2016 estimates. This isn’t shocking, considering how much volunteers help us balance administrative time, major projects, meeting new supporters, and so much more. But nonprofit professionals can probably agree that their true worth is priceless.
So what are we doing to recruit the volunteers of tomorrow? Youth volunteers are not just a resource now; they’re literally the future of our missions, and arguably one of the most long-term and cyclical factors impacting the effectiveness of our causes. To keep this resource growing and our communities thriving on some of its most basic and innovative social and civic foundations, we need to implement inclusive ways to engage youth of all ages in service.
Similar to the points discussed by OneCause’s Steve Johns in February about the future of Millenials as “poised” donors – we need to think about today’s youth as our next round of dedicated do-gooders. Johns was on point, noting a need for “interesting volunteer efforts” and the likelihood that cause interests will “dovetail with their parents’ interests.” Parents and guardians can be effective mentors in service, leading young children to a better understanding of community issues, involvement with organizations working to fix them, and a direct line to influencing social change.
Hands-On Opportunities for Fun and Family
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, youth with at least one parent who volunteers is two times more likely to volunteer themselves and three times more likely to do so regularly. So if you’re just now starting to engage youth, one of your most valuable resources will likely be your active volunteer pool. Start a conversation about their families, and friends with youth. If hands-on tasks assigned to adults could also be appropriate for accompanied youth, then invite adult volunteers to bring youth along.
Consider your organization’s needs. What unique ways can you come up with to create nostalgic pathos that keeps families and young ones volunteering for years to come? One great example in the Raleigh area is the Wildflower Watering Club at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve, welcoming parents and caregivers with kids aged 2 to 5 to “spend quality time” while “instilling the importance of volunteering at an early age.” This seemingly small concept checks off all the boxes for filling a need and establishing a good relationship with youth and their families. To retain youth volunteers, consider your engagement plan before they age out of certain opportunities like this. What more advanced volunteer tasks can both the parent or guardian and child complete together? Keep levels of engagement in your mind – and keep your ears open for feedback or growing and established talents or interests.
Age-Appropriate Philanthropy as They Grow
As you begin engaging older youth, especially teens, consider tasks that would not require parent supervision, but remember to cover bases with a waiver process and possibly employee background checks. Then think about fun experiences for friends or groups to work on together, perhaps during regular bring-a-friend days, or at teen and family volunteer events. You may also consider offering portable projects that they can do at home when transportation or scheduling is an issue. Tasks could range from administrative duties to donation drives to annual event planning components.
If you’re ready for a new level, come up with opportunities mingling with career exploration. Would your capacity allow a teen council, youth fundraising committee, or designated board seats? Can you establish a summer job shadowing and volunteer program for service in shorter, concentrated stints? What about service project contests, or proposals for new tech or facility components that you can actually implement with help from a new donor?
For these types of opportunities, you’re engaging youth in planning, designing, and operations at a leadership level. These positions broaden your volunteer community to their schools and extracurricular groups, boosting your visibility. This can also add a new level of ethos and logos to your work by enforcing learned skills and exercising youth’s potential, possibly guiding future careers. The idealist in us all should leverage these opportunities to hopefully even impact the economic wellbeing of the communities we serve. Possibilities are endless, and you might be reminded of the resourcefulness of youth.
Reflect On Experiences
Regardless of a volunteer’s age or efforts, don’t dodge the reflection process. Reflection can drive your mission home, clarify emotions, divulge impacts on a volunteer’s perspective that make great stories, and more. Invest in this opportunity to give both you and your volunteers a new viewpoint of their service. You can reflect one-on-one or as a group, at the very end of service or periodically throughout. Try making reflection fun by including elements of creativity, like drawing, that you can share with others later. Emphasize accomplishments, new knowledge, and future goals.
For families, reflection could include a handout with starter questions for parents to take home, possibly encouraging talk with kids over dinner. For teens, perhaps speak with them before they leave your location; offer them opportunity to both ask and answer questions to help them understand your cause. Through my personal discussions with teens, I’ve learned that a big reason they don’t return to a project or organization is because the connections between tasks and an organization’s mission are not being communicated, and they overall want to make a difference for a cause. One example a teen gave was creating decorations for a nonprofit’s event, followed by: “How does that help?” To us, we see the financial and staff time savings and program support – but we cannot assume that these connections are clear for our volunteers. Losing our teens to these communication oversights shouldn’t be an option.
To really boost your youth engagement process, you may find that a short intro to your mission or the impact of a task at the beginning of a volunteer shift is the best way to address recurring confusion exposed during reflection. All in all, regardless of age, reflection is a casual way to survey the health of your volunteer base. If you value the youth reflection process especially, you’ll undoubtedly increase the value of their efforts. Visit the Corporation for National and Community Service website to read more about reasons to reflect and find supporting materials.
Balance Your Youth Capacity
If you’re struggling to get your youth volunteer programming started, consider finding a balance that doesn’t take away too much time from your staff. Curate a list of all the possible “portable projects” that a volunteer or volunteer group can help you with from home to save you time or boost your services, like making decorations for an event, writing encouraging letters to those you serve, or making no-sew blankets for the homeless in winter. Consider designating a person on your staff to oversee planning of a volunteer engagement strategy, but then ask a trusted board member to take the lead with the help of an intern, and get long-term volunteers involved. Encourage community participation by asking for feedback through surveys, brainstorming or focus group sessions that allow them to express interests more directly, and possibly come up with ideas that haven’t occurred to you yet. Once you’re settled on a good place to begin, and a process or set of guidelines to follow, it will become all the easier to welcome youth to your volunteer community and grow with it.
Krystal Hare is the Youth Programs Coordinator for Activate Good.